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Green terminology for business: sustainable vs eco-friendly vs ethical

green terminology business

Buzzwords from green businesses have become commonplace, but what exactly do all the terms like “sustainable”, “fair trade ” or “eco-friendly” even mean? Most of us do not want to harm the environment with our consumer habits, and we actively try to seek out sustainable businesses. Here we have prepared a guide for you about green business types, and exactly what a sustainable business is.

What is the definition of a green business?

The “green business” definition can be used interchangeably with the “sustainable business” definition. It can be defined asa business that seeks to solve environmental problems by offering environmentally friendly products or services, or by implementing stringent internal procedures to improve environmental quality or human health for their customers and employees.”

Green businesses are therefore businesses that do not harm the environment when offering their products or services, and may even play a role in improving the health of humans and the environment.

There are many different green business types. These can include businesses that:

  • Supply cruelty-free self-care products;
  • Publish environmental content;
  • Provide plastic-free products and shipping;
  • Produce sustainable construction materials;
  • Offer handmade and organic products;
  • Sell upcycled or second-hand items;
  • Offer environmental consulting services.

Green terms and buzzwords and what they mean

These environmentally-friendly businesses often use buzzwords in their marketing, and although these “green” terms sound promising and uplifting, we sometimes do not know exactly what they mean. This is because a lot of the terminology used does not have any legal definitions. Below we try to clear this confusion up, and explain the differences between green, sustainable, eco-friendly, zero waste, ethical, fair trade, and socially responsible.

1. Green

Green is more than just a color. In an organization, the “green” definition is harnessing opportunities from nature, without harming the environment. Green is an umbrella term and is used to describe any business, product, or service that does not cause significant environmental damage. This includes types of businesses, how they are managed, the design of products, and various business practices.

2. Sustainable and Sustainability

Sustainability was defined by the United Nations Bruntland Commission in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The three pillars of sustainability are environmental, social, and economic.

Sustainable products are therefore those products that do not harm the environment (and may even provide benefits to the environment) while providing social and economic benefits. Sustainable products must not cause harm to the environment at any stage during their lifecycle, from extracting raw materials to disposing of the product at the end of its life.

3. Eco-friendly

Eco-friendly is often used interchangeably with “green”. The term eco-friendly is not as broad as green and is specifically used for products or services that do not harm the natural environment.

Real eco-friendly products are often labeled with an “ecolabel”. An ecolabel is a recognizable logo used to certify products as environmentally friendly. Some examples include Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle Certified, and Rain Forest Alliance certified.

4. Zero Waste

Zero waste is the practice of eliminating waste products during production processes. Zero waste products or services are those that do not contribute to waste, pollution, or disposal of waste to landfills. Green businesses often advertise a “zero waste lifestyle”. This lifestyle reduces personal waste generation through reducing, reusing, and recycling products where possible.

5. Ethical

Ethical items do not only address environmental concerns, but also human conduct. Being ethical means you do not cause harm to others. Businesses that are labeled as ethical have fair wages, clean and safe working conditions, and transparency in their model and supply chain so that consumers can see every step of the process.

6. Fair Trade and Fairtrade

Fair trade businesses are sustainable businesses that aim to have stable and fair price tags, healthy working conditions, and various social and environmental standards that empower communities involved in the production of the product. Fair trade companies may seek to be Fairtrade certified. This certification ensures that the company meets international standards of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

7. Socially Responsible

Corporate Social Responsibility relates to companies that have systems in place to benefit stakeholders, local communities, and consumers. These companies are still seeking to make a profit but do so by improving the wellbeing of the community.

Beware of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a marketing strategy used by companies that make consumers falsely believe the company is doing a lot to protect the environment when this is often not true. The terminology listed above is often used in greenwashing, so you must do your research and make sure the business can back up its eco-friendly claims.

Using Green Terminology in your Business

A lot of the green terms listed above can be used to explain your sustainable business model. They can often be used together, however, most of them are not interchangeable as they have slightly different meanings. Eco-friendly products can also be Fairtrade certified, and something that is zero waste can also be ethical.

If you wish to use these terms in the marketing of the products or services of your environmental business, you must be able to prove the validity of your claims, otherwise, you may be accused of greenwashing. Green businesses must be transparent in their practices, so consumers can rest assured their purchasing and use of services are not harming the planet.


Further reading:

Latest tips and advice for green businesses

Our fresh list of 100+ green business ideas

Interviews with green business owners.

Check out our resources library.


Author: Adri Meyer holds a B.Sc Conservation Ecology from Stellenbosch University and a M.Phil Marine and Environmental Law from the University of Cape Town. She has 2 years working with BirdLife South Africa, a conservation NGO, and 5 years working as an Environmental Assessment Practitioner, conducting Environmental Impact Assessments within the agriculture, housing and waste industry, and acting as an Environmental Control Officer on construction sites. She has 1 year’s experience as a content creator for several sustainability and conservation focused websites. In her free time, she volunteers at the Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Center (SAPREC) as well as the local Animal Welfare.

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