What eco-friendly really means, and how to be more environmentally-friendly

05 November 2020 | Aimee Tweedale

We hear terms like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ all the time, but what do they really mean? Read our guide to find it out and understand  the differences between ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’.

people shopping in a sustainable shop

As we all become more aware of the climate crisis, and want to do our bit to fight it, these are necessary questions to ask. When everything from your washing-up liquid to your food is claiming to be good for the planet, it’s natural to want to know what that really entails.

Here’s a breakdown of what people actually mean when they say something is ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, or ‘sustainable’. Plus, read on for some tips on how to live more environmentally-friendly, and what we at OVO are doing to give back to the planet.

What does ‘eco-friendly’ mean?

‘Eco’ comes from the Latin root ‘oeco’, meaning ‘household’. It’s often used now to mean ‘habitat’, ‘home’, or ‘Earth’. And so, ‘eco-friendly’ simply means Earth-friendly.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, being eco-friendly means being ‘designed to have little or no damaging effect on the environment’1.

Basically, it’s all about doing no harm. Products, events, and services that are eco-friendly don’t cost the Earth. When thinking about products in particular, it means looking at everything from how the product is made, to how it’s delivered. Does any part of that process harm the planet? If so, it’s not entirely eco-friendly. 

What’s the difference between ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, and ‘sustainable’?

Like ‘eco-friendly’ the term ‘green’ generally means being kind to the Earth, often by trying to have a lighter carbon footprint. According to Birnur Aral PhD, from the Good Housekeeping Institute, the word green “generally implies better practices for both the environment and the people involved"2

It’s quite an informal, casual term that can be applied in lots of ways, but usually it’s understood to have a similar meaning to ‘eco-friendly’. You might have heard it in relation to the Green Party, who fight for climate action in parliament. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘green’ as ‘relating to the protection of the environment’3.

‘Sustainable’ has a slightly more complex definition. Back in 1987, the UN’s Bruntland Commission defined ‘sustainable development’ as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”4. According to this definition, there are 3 pillars of sustainability:

  • Environmental: This pillar focuses on reducing carbon emissions and waste, to minimise impact on the planet.
  • Economic: This is about making sure people around the world can make a secure living financially, now and in the future.
  • Social: Finally, this pillar is all about making sure people have their needs met and human rights respected. If you’re a sustainable business, it’s about treating your employees fairly5.

These days, ‘sustainable’ is used to refer to everything from food to fashion. Usually, in this context, companies are referring mainly to the first pillar of sustainability: environment. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘sustainable’ as ‘causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’6

The crucial factor in sustainability is thinking about the future. Whether you’re growing crops, designing clothes, or cleaning your home, it’s about doing so in a way that protects resources for future generations to come. 

Want to learn more? Check out our guide to the difference between "zero carbon", "net zero", and "carbon neutral".

What is ‘greenwashing’?

So now you know what ‘green’ means – but what about greenwashing? Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, greenwashing is when brands and companies make eco-friendly promises, without actually backing it up with eco-friendly practices7.

Being ‘green’ makes companies look good to people who are worried about the climate crisis. But it’s always important to look beyond the branding, at what corporations are really doing about their carbon footprint.

How to find eco products

When you’re shopping, one quick way to see if a product is environmentally-friendly is to look at the label. Not all eco-friendly products are labelled, but there are various logos that signal things that are sustainably made, fairtrade, or cruelty-free.

Trusted logos include the Soil Association symbol, which shows that a product is organic. There’s also the Rainforest Alliance frog logo, which only appears on products that meet rigorous sustainability standards8.

To decode the different labels you see when shopping – and to check how trustworthy they are – try looking them up in this online index of European environmental labels, or with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

Sometimes, brands will create their own logos. These don’t have an official meaning that you can look up, so it’s worth looking into what the brand is trying to communicate, and what they’re actually doing. If you’re concerned about whether a product or service is really eco-friendly, it may take a bit of research to find out what’s going on behind the label.

Also: pay attention to packaging. Even if a product has sustainable ingredients, it might not come in a sustainable box or bottle. Always think of the three Rs: can this be recycled, reused, or reduced?9 Packaging made from recycled materials is best, and in general, less is always more. 

A brief guide on how to be more eco-friendly

So how to meet the challenge head-on and embrace being eco-friendly in your own habits? Here are some quick tips to help you be greener in your everyday life. These pointers are just the tip of the iceberg, but they’re all important things to consider if you want to tackle your own carbon footprint.

1. Make your home energy-efficient

In the fight against the climate crisis, energy-efficiency is key. After all, a whopping 26% of your carbon footprint is probably made up of emissions from your home10.

There are lots of ways to make sure your house is making the most of its energy, from insulating and draught-proofing the building and repairing or replacing your boiler. See our blog for more on what energy-efficiency really is, and how to make sure your home isn’t wasting any of the stuff.

Your day-to-day habits at home can make a difference, too. For example, consider buying an eco-friendly, water-saving shower head. And don’t wash the dishes every time they’re dirty! You’ll be glad to hear it’s actually more efficient to let them pile up, then more infrequently run your dishwasher11. Read more about this in our guide to saving water in the kitchen.

2. Get on your bike

If you want to help fight air pollution, you have to drive less. It’s that simple. Overall, 30% of the EU’s carbon emissions come from transport – and a huge 72% of that comes from cars12.

Another major contributor is air travel. The aviation industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming as a whole13. So for your next holiday, why not try a staycation, or plan a trip by train using tips from The Man in Seat Sixty-One?

3. Shop mindfully

As well as looking for eco-friendly logos when shopping, there are other ways to lighten the carbon footprint of your basket. Wherever possible, it’s best to shop for items that are plastic-free (think: unwrapped fruit and veg), and to buy local. That way your items have a shorter journey from production to the dinner table.

If you really want to dig deep, it’s worth having a look at the ingredients list, and researching those, too. For example, when you’re buying cleaning products, it’s a good idea to look for non-toxic, natural ingredients whenever possible.

Most importantly of all: buy less. Every time you decide to reuse something you already own, rather than getting something new, it’s a win for the environment. 

Read more about this in our guide on how to give eco-friendly gifts.

4. You are what you eat

When it comes to food, cutting out animal products is one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the planet. A 2020 study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy out of your diet could lighten your individual carbon footprint by as much as 73%14.

Going vegan isn’t for everyone, but there are other things you can do to make your diet greener. As well as looking out for certified organic, fairtrade food, you can use reusable food wraps to carry your lunch rather single-use plastic. Consider getting a compost bin, too, to make the best use of your food waste.

For more information on making eco-friendly switches to your lifestyle, check out our blog on how to lighten your carbon footprint, and our list of the top 10 smart phone apps to help you form eco-friendly habits.

Sources and references:

10 Based on analysis carried out by the Carbon Trust for OVO Group (2019), 26% of an average individual’s carbon footprint in the UK comes from energy. In this analysis, the carbon footprint includes the following lifestyle categories: energy, transport, shopping, food and drink and holidays. See table for each category. This excludes emissions from things that the average person cannot directly control such as supporting the NHS, defence, government bodies, etc.





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