What Is Eco-Friendly? The Complicated Question

The terms eco-friendly and environment friendly are not as simple as they sound. The more I explore, the more I find myself perplexed. I am not new to this field; I have been working in environment and sustainability for years, and even in my engineering days, I was at it.

The more I dive into it, the more I realize that almost everywhere, companies are vaguely slapping titles like green, eco-friendly, etc., on things that are clearly harmful to the environment. Last week, while I was shopping at a supermarket, I saw a regular plastic bottle labeled green! I mean, come on! How can anyone actually believe that to be true? Then I began researching on the internet, and all I can find are vague definitions. That one bottle made me reevaluate my beliefs and motivated me to find the true meaning of eco friendly. 

According to the dictionary, eco-friendly means “Not harmful to the environment.”

If you think about it, the obvious question is, can you truly make anything without affecting the environment? I gathered a few of my scientist friends and had a huge debate on this. Technically speaking, you can virtually prove that everything we do harm the environment in one way or the other. The electricity we use, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the cellphones we use; you know where I am getting with this.

Relax, I don’t want to make you guilty or spoil your mood. It’s just a thought experiment that I performed. If you would like to contribute, I welcome your inputs in the comments section. 


As discussed above, companies slapping vague labels on their products, creating an illusion that they are environmentally friendly, is called greenwashing. 

These products are rarely eco-friendly, and in most cases, harmful to the environment.

These vague labels are purposely designed to target environmentally conscious people. Greenwashing helps companies increase their profits and deceive people.

So what are the authorities doing about it? The good news is that there are detailed rules on ecolabelling drafted by governments and NGOs, and reliable third-party organizations certify the eco-friendly characteristics after meticulous inspection based on scientific norms.

The bad news is that most of these ecolabels are voluntary, and it is up to the companies whether they want to do it or not.


Not all ecolabels are vague. Most notable ecolabels have specific and well-defined norms that a company needs to fulfill before using them.

International Standards Organisation (ISO) has established ecolabeling principles in ISO 14020 to 14025. 

These labels serve as a declaration about the environmental aspects of a product or service. They can be in the form of a logo or a graphic, notice, tag, technical bulletin, advertisement, or documentation. 

The ISO has classified ecolabels into three major categories. 

1. Type 1

 The type 1 ecolabels are the most trustworthy amongst the three. They are usually certified by governments or reliable third party organizations after a detailed review 

2. Type 2

Type 2 labels are self-declared by the manufacturers and therefore regarded as less credible. Type 2 labels are mainly used for low environmental impact products where the long process and cost of type 1 labels are avoidable. 

3. Type 3

Type 3 labels are also voluntary, but quantitative data mostly accompany these. These may or may not be certified by a third party. Type 3 labels are mainly intended for b2b use, so they are designed with the professional nature of the end-user in mind.

How to spot ecofriendly products 

The first thing that you can do is to check the product for labels. It would be best to take labels like green, good for the planet, environmentally friendly with the grain of salt. Rather, look for labels issued by credible organizations or governments. 

This might seem tedious and time-consuming, but it’s actually really simple. You can visit the ecolabel index. Here, you can access most of the recognized ecolabels in the world. If you want to dig even deeper, you can visit the associated site of the ecolabel. Most likely, you will find all the information regarding the environmental impact of the product in question. 

Life cycle Analysis

Life cycle analysis is a crucial part of the eco-labeling process. Sometimes to create an eco-friendly product, we solve a sustainability problem at one stage of manufacturing but introduce a problem into another.

A product might have a sustainable manufacturing process, but its packaging or disposal could damage the environment.

To create relevant ecolabels, the environmental impact of products is analyzed for all phases of their life. The life cycle of a product can be divided into four parts

  • Production 
  • Packing 
  • Use 
  • Disposal/recycling 

This process is important to ensure that we are reducing the overall environmental impact of the product.

Eco-friendly product characteristics 

The exact characteristics that make a product eco-friendly will vary by product type. However, some basic elements must be present in an environmentally friendly product

  • It should be non-toxic at the very least
  • It should be sustainably produced in such a way that it does not permanently deplete resources or deprive future generations of its use
  • It should be biodegradable and should break down by natural processes

Final Thoughts

The terms eco friendly and environmentally friendly are a little vague and don’t provide an accurate assessment of a product’s environmental impact. The better question would be, How eco-friendly is the product? That could clearly help in examining how the product affects the environment compared to its counterparts. 

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