I am sure you have heard the terms ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ thrown around a lot recently. They have been used to describe everything from food to clothes to businesses. But do you know what they actually mean – what is the difference between them, and why should we care?
Eco is an abbreviation of the word ecology. It describes the relationship between all living things and their environment. So, if something is labelled eco-friendly, it means that it is not harmful to the environment. Sometimes interchangeable with the work ‘green’, it has become a bit of a catch-all for something perceived as good for the planet.
Sustainability as a concept has been around for a little longer and is more specific in its meaning. The official definition is something that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The resources on our planet are finite, which means that once they are gone, they are gone. Sustainability is all about using the resources we have at a rate that will not deplete them completely.
Still confused? Let’s delve further. Just because something is eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean that it is sustainable. A product might be made from a renewable resource – which is great and technically puts it in the category of eco-friendly. But, if that product is produced at a rate that is faster than the resource can grow (for example, types of timber). Or, if it takes a lot of energy to ship from across the other side of the world, or if there is no way for the product to be disposed of properly…then that product is not sustainable.
Companies may claim their product is green or eco-friendly, but actually, it could be doing more harm than good to the planet. These businesses will use clever wording, branding or advertisements to make it seem like their product is the most sustainable of choices, but in reality, it is nothing more than a calculated and underhand business tactic, and one that is tricky to navigate. Let’s look at an example of the latter…
Increasing in popularity, they are non-animal-based alternatives to leather products. These can be made from a variety of sources, from mushrooms to plastic to pineapples. On paper, this seems like a great substitute – no animals were harmed in the making of this jacket! However, if we delve a little deeper, we find it more complicated than that.
Because vegan leather can be derived from various sources, it isn’t easy to assess the sustainability of the supply chains. What we do know is that the durability of the faux leather will be very dependent on what it is made from. Whilst a real leather item could last decades, one made from vegan products might only last between 2- 5 years. The lifespan will be dependent on whether a plastic coating is used, and so now there is a trade-off between being plastic-free and being durable. Genuine leather will ultimately biodegrade, whereas the faux alternative contributes to the production of more plastic, which will eventually break down and may end up in our oceans as microplastics.
So, is vegan leather more eco-friendly than its animal-based counterparts? In a sense – yes. Is it a completely sustainable replacement? Unfortunately, not.
Hopefully, it has been helpful to understand the difference between these two terms and explore an example in a little more detail. We know it can be confusing, and sometimes it is difficult to make the right choices as consumers. The best advice is to be a conscious shopper and remember; just because something is ‘eco-friendly’ doesn’t immediately make it the best option for our planet!