If you’re one of the 88% of Americans who say they believe taking care of the earth is important, then you want to be sure the products you purchase will contribute to that care and don’t cause the planet any harm. Understanding how to know if a product is sustainable gives you the ability to use your money wisely. Here are six key ways to know if a product you are considering buying is eco-friendly.
1. It’s Made From Recycled and Recyclable Materials
Recycled materials are sourced from other products rather than untapped natural resources; recyclable materials can be used to make other products. The term “post-consumer,” for example, preceding the name of a material on a product label, conveys that the material is recycled.
Not all eco-friendly products are made from recycled materials, but those have at least one mark in their favor for meeting eco-friendly standards. If a product is not made from recyclable materials, it had better at least be biodegradable to pass eco-friendly muster (see more on this below).
2. It’s Made From Renewable Resources
While the first factor is concerned with the materials from which a product is made, this second factor is concerned with the energy and other resources used to make those materials into the product.
Renewable resources can be naturally and organically replaced within a particular time frame. As such, they minimize waste. Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are nonrenewable resources, they can eventually be fully depleted. Wind and solar energy, by contrast, are renewable.
Using renewable resources to minimize the environmental impact of a product like a shampoo bar or natural lip balm means using them at every stage of the product’s life cycle: from production to distribution to consumption.
3. It’s Made of Compostable Material
What happens to a product when its life cycle runs out? If it’s not recyclable, then will it at least break down into its organic components and become part of the earth again, or will it remain intact for the foreseeable future, further filling up oceans and landfills?
Non-biodegradable materials include Styrofoam and most plastics, while biodegradable materials, also known as compostable materials, include:
- Organic cotton or linen
- Peace silk
4. You Can Read the Label
Nutritionists always tell you to read the ingredient label, but environmentalists are also well-aware of the need to read product labels. As with food ingredients, if you can’t read or don’t recognize an item’s name on a product label, there’s a good chance you don’t want it in, on or anywhere near your body. This isn’t always the case since everything has a chemical name; many chemical compounds are safe for use, and many natural ingredients are harvested without regard to sustainability — but it’s a good place to start.
For example, a natural dry shampoo may have an ingredient you may be unfamiliar with, like bentonite: a naturally-harvested clay that helps absorb excess oils. If you can’t understand one of the ingredients, do your research to ensure it is safe.
Beware, however, of a practice called “greenwashing” appearing on product labels and packaging. Greenwashing is the use of catchphrases and triggers words like “all-natural,” “non-toxic,” “chemical-free” or even, in some cases, “organic,” with no specificity or backing. Methods of greenwashing include asserting eco-friendliness without proof as the “lesser of two evils” or in an irrelevant, vague or patently false manner.
5. It Doesn’t Violate Human Rights
To be eco-friendly also means to be human-rights-friendly. Put another way: environmental responsibility includes social responsibility. Whether or not a product is sustainable and supports the greater health of the planet, including its inhabitants, depends on it being built by ethically-sourced labor. This means no child labor, forced labor or exploited migrant labor was used to make the product, nor did any other workers have their human rights violated in its manufacture or distribution. This includes ensuring workers aren’t laboring under unhealthy or unsafe conditions.
Socially responsible business practices include fairness, equality and diversity in hiring. This means paying a fair wage, and allowing workers a voice in the company. In this way, workers can be more healthy, happy, productive and successful citizens of their given communities and countries. This, in turn, can make those nations better equipped to make more sustainable choices on a macro-level, like improving cities and reducing pollution.
6. The Business Behind It Has Received Recognized Marks of Approval
Many agencies and organizations monitor product manufacturers and distributors to determine their degree of eco-friendliness (or unfriendliness, as the case may be), including:
- The Global Reporting Initiative – Reports on the environmental, social and economic impact of products and organizations
- The United Nations Environment Program – Provides global environmental standards
- CSRHub – Offers consensus ESG (environmental, social and governance) ratings and rankings
- Greener Choices – A Consumer Reports website that examines the environmental impact of various purchasing decisions
Many organizations offer green certifications for businesses in their particular industry, such as the U.S. Green Business Council’s LEED green building certification and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program for household appliances.
How To Determine a Product’s Sustainability
These six ways we listed are some of the most measurable means of identifying how sustainable a given product was manufactured and delivered. Other factors are less easy to quantify, such as whether or not the product might be contributing to the growth of a monopoly or pseudo-monopoly or the company’s treatment of workers. In questions like these, information is purchasing power.
Once you understand how to tell if a product is sustainable, you can make a thoughtful purchase. This rewards the companies that make sustainable products you want to use while reducing your impact on the environment and the people who rely on it.