Eco-Friendly vs Sustainable: What's the Difference?

TheRoundup is reader supported. We may earn a small commission when you make a purchase via links on this site, at no cost to you.
James Miller
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy.
James Miller
Updated: June 8, 2024

Eco-friendly and sustainable are terms you'll find in many of our Eco-Friendly Products articles. But do you know what they actually mean?

If not, you're not alone. Many environmentally conscious consumers struggle to understand eco-friendly vs. sustainable. It can be confusing and frustrating when brands and media use the terms interchangeably without fully understanding them.

I've spent decades buying, using, and testing sustainable products. So I understand the nuances and the importance of getting it right.

This guide will help you understand the differences between the terms "eco-friendly", "green" and "sustainable". You'll also learn my top practical tips for making informed choices that benefit you and the planet.

Eco-Friendly vs Sustainable Explained

eco-friendly jargon buster terms explained

What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?

Eco-friendly means practices and products that are not environmentally harmful.

Think of items made from recycled materials or energy-efficient appliances. These choices help lessen immediate environmental impacts.

The problem is that eco-friendliness doesn't always address long-term sustainability (such as appliance disposal). It's about making choices that are better for the planet right now.

My What Does 'Eco-Friendly' Mean article covers the topic in more detail, including sections about the following:

  • A sustainability jargon buster
  • Tips on avoiding greenwashing
  • A beginner's guide to becoming more environmentally friendly

What Does Sustainable Mean?

Merriam-Webster defines sustainable in two different ways:

  • "of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged"
  • "of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods"

Sustainability goes beyond being eco-friendly. It focuses on long-term resource management. It also balances socio-economic factors.

This concept, sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line, includes:

  • People: Social sustainability promotes equity, justice, and well-being for everyone. It addresses issues like poverty and human rights. The goal is to build strong, inclusive communities.
  • Planet: Environmental sustainability aims to preserve natural resources and biodiversity. It includes practices like reducing waste, conserving energy, and protecting ecosystems.
  • Prosperity: Economic sustainability aims for economic growth within fair social and environmental policies. It includes fair trade, responsible consumption, and ensuring financial growth without depleting resources.

Addressing Common Misconceptions

Are All Eco-Friendly Products Sustainable?

No, just because a product is eco-friendly doesn't necessarily mean it is also sustainable.

When a product is described as eco-friendly, it generally means that making it doesn't harm the environment. However, it doesn't always consider long-term impacts or social and economic factors.

For example:

  • Biodegradable Utensils: A great idea because they break down faster and cleaner than plastic. However, they may not always be composted correctly, leading to landfill waste.
  • Recycled Packaging: Helps reduce immediate waste. However, it might not be part of a circular economy where materials are continually reused.

Overlapping Goals

However, eco-friendly and sustainable practices can complement each other.

An example of this is businesses that use recycled materials (eco-friendly) and invest in fair trade practices (sustainable).

Is Non-Toxic the Same as Eco-Friendly or Sustainable?

Non-toxic products are designed to be safe for human health and to avoid harmful chemicals.

This is a crucial aspect of eco-friendliness and sustainability but doesn't cover the whole picture.

You can read more about the concept of non-toxic in my What Does Non-Toxic Mean article.

What Are the Key Eco-Friendly and Sustainability Legislation

FTC Green Guides

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) introduced the Green Guides to prevent misleading environmental claims and greenwashing.

Key aspects of the Green Guides include the following:

  • General Principles: Marketers should avoid broad claims like "green" or "eco-friendly" because they are hard to prove. Claims should be specific and supported by reliable scientific evidence.
  • Carbon Offsets: Companies must have reliable evidence to support their carbon offset claims. They must also disclose if the offsets will not occur for at least two years.
  • Certifications and Seals of Approval: Certifications must clearly explain the reason for the endorsement. Marketers must disclose any material connection with the certifying organization to ensure transparency.
  • Renewable Materials and Energy: Claims about renewable materials or energy must specify the type and source.

AB 1305

California's AB 1305 aims to enhance transparency in environmental claims.

It requires companies to disclose how their environmental claims are verified or achieved.

This is achieved in the following ways:

  • Public Disclosure: Companies must publicly disclose third-party verification of their greenhouse gas emissions. They must also reveal the methods used to achieve these claims.
  • Transparency: AB 1305 requires businesses to give clear updates on their environmental goals.
  • Scope: AB 1305 applies to domestic and international entities operating within California.

Additional Legislation

The FTC's Green Guides and California's AB 1305 are the two most common regulations.

However, other federal and state laws support environmentally responsible practices, such as:

  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Guidelines: The SEC has proposed rules requiring public companies to disclose climate-related risks and greenhouse gas emissions. These rules aim to provide accurate environmental information and boost investor and consumer confidence.
  • State-Level Initiatives: Various states have laws and regulations addressing environmental claims. For example, New York has adopted portions of the FTC Green Guides into state law.

Sustainable Shopping Guide

Shopping for environmentally friendly products and services can be simple with the right approach.

Here's a brief guide to help you make informed choices:

  • Know your product labels and eco-certifications
  • Prioritise reusable and recyclable over disposable
  • Support sustainable brands
  • Research and read reviews
  • Shop Local
  • Get your gas and electricity from a provider that uses renewable energy and reduces pollution

Frequently Ask Questions

What is the difference between eco-friendly technology and sustainable development?

Eco-friendly technology focuses on minimizing environmental impact in the short term. Sustainable development includes eco-friendly practices but goes further. It also focuses on long-term resource management, social equity, and economic stability.

Is eco-efficiency the same as sustainability?

No, eco-efficiency refers to creating more goods and services with fewer resources and less waste.

What is the difference between sustainable and eco-tourism?

Eco-tourism emphasizes minimizing immediate environmental impacts and supporting conservation efforts. However, sustainable tourism includes environmentally conscious practices and focuses on long-term benefits to local communities, economies, and ecosystems.

How can I tell if a company really sells environmentally friendly and sustainable products?

To tell if a company can really be considered sustainable, look for certifications from respected and well-known third parties.

Is it better to be sustainable or eco-friendly?

It's better to be sustainable. This comprehensive approach ensures both immediate and future environmental health.

Is being green the same as being eco-friendly?

There is a subtle difference between green and being eco-friendly. Being green is a broad commitment to reducing environmental impact. Eco-friendly specifically refers to products and practices that minimize harm to the environment.

The Final Word

Understanding the difference between eco-friendly and sustainable helps you make informed environmental choices.

Eco-friendly focuses on reducing actions that harm the environment. Sustainability aims for long-term resource management while balancing economic and societal needs.

This guide clarifies the terms further. It addresses common misconceptions and provides practical advice. Tips include shopping locally and prioritizing reusable items over disposable ones.

Want to deepen your knowledge and reduce your carbon footprint?

Explore our Eco-Friendly Products guides and discover green products made from sustainable materials that don't harm the planet.

You May Also Like

James Miller
James Miller
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy. - As Seen On
As Seen On Logos


Your guide to a green and eco-friendly lifestyle. We offer simple, practical advice that anyone can follow. Together we can make a difference today & save tomorrow.

All Content ©2024 TheRoundup - All Rights Reserved.

108 E Main St Suite 3 Fredericksburg, TX 78624 | +1-830-904-0838 | [email protected]