Eco-Friendly Vs Sustainable: What’s The Difference?

When I am shopping for gifts or household products, I try my best to buy things that are good for the planet. However, I have often felt confused and overwhelmed by the different ‘green’ words used in advertising.

What do these words mean, and do they actually mean anything?! I know I am not the only one who wants to try my best when it comes to consumerism. So I want to create this helpful guide for you that looks at one important distinction: eco-friendly vs sustainable.

Let’s look at what these words mean, and what phrases to look out for when shopping.

What Does Sustainable Mean?

The term sustainable was defined in 1987 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission as referring to ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘.

Let’s break this down a little, so we can understand it. When it comes to businesses, sustainability refers to the long-term effect of the creation of products, from the people to the planet.

There are three specific pillars of sustainability:

  • The Social Pillar: The company must treat its employees fairly and look after the community surrounding it. This means the company must tackle any pollution that will affect society.
  • The Environmental Pillar: The company must avoid harming the planet. They must do this by reducing waste and their carbon footprint.
  • The Economic Pillar: This refers to when a company is steadily making money. However, this pillar must not jeopardize the other two (read more about this in our article about economic sustainability).

When a company has all three pillars, they are sustainable.

But, what do we mean when we refer to ourselves being sustainable? Well, we can understand that as referring to acting consciously, with the future being our main focus. What decisions do we make that impact the future of this planet?

What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?

Unlike the word sustainable, it is harder to define the term ‘eco-friendly’. This term does not have any legal agreement or guideline as to what it refers to, and thus many companies will use the term without actually doing everything they can to look after the planet.

eco-friendly vs sustainable

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, eco-friendly refers to something that is ‘not harmful to the environment, or trying to help the environment‘. But, this term is not held to the same standard as the world sustainable, which has stricter guidelines.

Furthermore, most products being made do have some sort of impact on the environment, so a lot of items that use this term in their advertising are not actually eco-friendly.

If we examine the phrase, ‘trying to help the environment‘ we can definitely see how this term can be manipulated. A product may have one aspect that ‘helps’ the environment, for example, they may use some green energy in the production, yet may still have an unnecessary amount of plastic used in their packaging.

Eco-Friendly Vs Sustainable: The Difference

Now we know the definition of both terms, we can look at eco-friendly vs sustainable and what the main differences are.

Sustainable is more in-depth, and it can be broken down into three pillars to help us understand what it actually means. The term eco-friendly, on the other hand, is vaguer and therefore more likely to be misused. Furthermore, the term sustainable has a range of aspects to it, whereas eco-friendly just refers to the planet and how our actions impact it.

Items that are sustainable are eco-friendly, but not all eco-friendly products are sustainable.

Eco-Friendly Vs Sustainable: Greenwashing

The main reason we must truly understand these terms is to avoid greenwashing. Terms such as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, and ‘eco-friendly’ get thrown about a lot in consumerism, and thus we must be aware of their meanings and how to spot if a company is using them dishonestly.

Greenwashing refers to companies making consumers believe that they are doing more to help the planet than what they are actually doing.

Let’s look at these two terms in regard to greenwashing.


Despite having an in-depth definition, the word ‘sustainable’ can be used in greenwashing. A company may describe its product as sustainable, even if only a small part of it is made from sustainable materials.

Always read the fine print when shopping, and use your common sense. If something is claiming to be sustainable but is wrapped in plastic, it is definitely lying to you.


This term is more likely to crop up in greenwashing because it is not held to a specific standard, and therefore can be used freely by advertising.

If you see the term ‘eco-friendly’, look at the details of the product to see if it can back up this claim. Look for third-party certifications that support it being called eco-friendly, for example, the Green Seal or Fairtrade.

How to Be Sustainable and Eco-Friendly

When wanting to live a sustainable and eco-friendly life, you must be conscious of how your actions will impact the future and planet earth.

eco-friendly vs sustainability

Here are our top tips on living sustainably:

  • Use reusable shopping bags
  • Buy items with less plastic waste
  • Only buy what you need
  • When shopping, opt for companies that put sustainability at the forefront of their business model. Check out our guide to sustainable clothing brands here, and our guide to sustainable beauty here
  • Buy secondhand clothing from thrift stores
  • Avoid single-use products
  • Purchase certified sustainable products
  • When grocery shopping, try to buy items that are in season in your area

We Have the Power

I hope this eco-friendly vs sustainable guide has clued you up on these two terms and what they mean for the planet! Going green and doing our bit for the planet can seem really daunting. There are so many different words to know, and there are so many companies that misuse certain words.

However, with more understanding, we have the power to make the right choices when shopping. Knowing the distinction between sustainable and eco-friendly means we can work out what companies are doing (and not doing) to help the planet.