Are you new to this sustainability lark and wonder what the real difference between ‘green’ and ‘natural’ is? This post is for you.
In this era where more and more people are choosing what they believable to be sustainable products and services, some of the terminology gets misused and can therefore be misleading. It’s worth getting to grips with just what exactly is meant by certain terms in order to take sustainability in interiors seriously (and to make sure you’re not being duped!).
Here are six terms commonly used to describe various eco-friendly materials and products, in alphabetical order, along with my interpretation of them into layman's terms. I’ve also linked to some good additional resources for some of the terms.
1. Eco or environmentally friendly
Items or actions which minimise or do little harm to the environment. ‘Eco’ or ‘environmentally’ can be used interchangeably. ‘Eco’ refers to ecologically, or done in a way that is in tune with ecosystems or living organisms. I would not conflate ‘eco-friendly’ with environmentally sustainable though (see below definition of sustainable). The word ‘friendly’ just implies lower or limited damage, rather than a balance of impacts. See here for further discussion.
‘Green’ should really be used to mean eco-friendly, but it is ripe for misuse since there are no set boundaries around or set definition of what is green and what isn’t. I usually avoid using this term because it’s just too wishy washy.
Something which comes from the natural world or is not man-made / synthetic. It’s a term that marketers have co-opted to boost the image of products in many cases, as natural can be confused with eco-friendly. ‘Natural’ is even more ripe for misuse than ‘green’. It’s often included in the packaging of all kinds of products, from toothpaste, cheese, fabric, carpet, etc. (Or even better ‘all natural’). While something might be natural, that doesn’t mean it is always sustainable or even eco-friendly. Cotton, for example, is often marketed as an ‘all natural’ material. Yet the conventional production of cotton uses an immense amount of resources and pesticides. Same with ply/plywood. It’s now frequently used in interiors and is touted for its natural look. But its production process is energy and resource intensive. The glue used to bind sheets together typically includes the carcinogen formaldehyde (actually itself a naturally occurring organic compound, but that's another story) and therefore plywood can off-gas this VOC during production and in-situ. The point is: be a little sceptical around products and materials touted as ‘natural’.
4. Organic (fabric/materials)
Organic fabrics or materials are made from plants which are grown without synthetic fertilisers or toxic pesticides. Generally this means that an effort is made to have a low-impact on the environment and that plants are grown in the presence of biologically diverse agriculture - or sustainably. But while small scale organic farming might be more sustainable than conventional agriculture (which uses pesticides), large scale organic farming tends to need more land. This requirements means more natural habitat may be destroyed, so large-scale organic farming is not always considered sustainable. Check here for more information and mythbusting around organic farming.
5. Renewable resource
Materials which can be replaced or regrown, such as wool, seagrass, or non-manmade fibres. This is opposed to non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels - once they’re gone, they’re gone! Usually eco-friendly or sustainable products will use renewable resources.
6. Sustainable / sustainability / sustainably
Sustain ability means meeting current needs for resources and materials without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for these. Sustainability is said to be reached when three pillars are in harmony: the environment, society, and the economy. A sustainably produced piece of furniture would be made from wood or other materials which did not damage the forest irreparably, was produced in fair conditions for the workers, and earned the seller a fair price. It’s all about the balance, but as you can imagine it can be difficult to be genuinely sustainable in all three areas (environment, society, economy). See this further explainer sheet on sustainability.
I hope this short educational interlude will help you cut through some of the marketing fluff that can come with products and services. Please get in touch if there are other terms you would like clarified, or if you’d like to know more about these. And for those of you who already understand these concepts well, what do you think, have I got them right? Let me know in the comments below. As always, please share this post if you found it helpful.
Thanks for reading!