What is environmentally friendly?


What is environmentally friendly?

A confusing, ill-defined term. Is it pure marketing?

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Earlier I posted about the definition of a sustainable product. But, there are more definitions in the world of sustainability that can be confusing. One of them is “environmentally-friendly”. I got the idea of making this post because I answered a question on Quora:

Is there an environmentally-friendly version of plastic wrap?

In general, I don’t like terms that are open to multiple interpretations, as it makes communication difficult and paves the way for greenwashing. Environmentally-friendly makes it even worse, by combining two of these terms into one!

Environmental and friendly

Let’s start with the term “environmental”. This is an adjective, meaning “relating to the environment”, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, which in turn means “the air, water, and land in or on which people, animals, and plants live”. Essentially we’re then talking about our physical living space, including nature, cities, oceans and the skies.

So we want to be friendly towards this environment, apparently. What does that mean? Again, looking at the dictionary: “behaving in a pleasant, kind way towards someone”. If we take this literally, this would mean that an environmentally-friendly product behaves in a kind way towards the environment. As we all know: behaving in a certain way doesn’t mean actually being a certain way. Good news for greenwashers? No, the dictionary also mentions that it is used as a suffix to mean “not harmful”. 

Not harmful

The term “environmentally-friendly” then should mean that something is not harmful to the environment. That’s quite something! Can you have an environmentally-friendly car, if it needs to drive on a road produced with polluting asphalt? Is a paper bag really an environmentally-friendly alternative to a plastic one? After all, a tree was cut, having some effect on a natural environment, and then likely processed and transported using fossil fuels: hardly not harmful. 

The real issue

The issue I have with this word is that it feels like an environmentally-friendly solution is actually beneficial to the environment: the more you use it, the better! This, obviously, is not the case, but I’m afraid that many people interpret the term like this to clear their conscience. The truth is, in almost all cases the term should not be “environmentally-friendly”, but rather “less environmentally-unfriendly”. But hey: that doesn’t look good on the marketing posters…

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