Does ‘Eco-Friendly’ Really Mean Anything?

Illustration by  Carla Crespo

Illustration by Carla Crespo


The term doesn't actually have any legal bearing, which means anything and anyone can claim to be "eco-friendly.


The term "eco-friendly" (sometimes used as "nature-friendly," or "environmentally-friendly") is generally understood to mean minimal harm to the environment. You can find this phrase on many products and places, like resorts. A lesser known fact is that there are no legal definitions, or conditions, that need to be met in order for a site to be considered "eco-friendly." This is similar to the way that products can claim to be "all-natural," even if they don't necessarily use organic ingredients.

Eco-tourism, eco-hotels, eco-lodges. These have more to do with branding than they do with actual practices.

Because of the lack of standardization, a lot of products/places which don't necessarily subscribe to environmentally-friendly practices can claim to be eco-friendly. This is also known as greenwashing


What can I do?

Look closely before buying into a site's "eco-friendly" practices. Ask questions. A resort might claim to be an eco-resort, for example, because they are situated in a garden or a farm. An environmentally-friendly resort would actually take steps towards reducing its footprint. Know what you're buying into.

There are also third-party companies and organizations which credit companies for their sustainability practices. This is another way of figuring out how committed they are to this label.


Quick reads Scientific American 
References GST Council | Global Ecolabeling Network


What questions can I ask to know what I'm buying into?

This travel guide by Responsible Traveler gives some great practical tips, such as asking the owner how many locals they've employed (which can tell you whether they are giving back to the local community) and if they have any written environmental policies (that they are forced to take seriously).

Below is a handy guide we’ve curated on the different terms you might find on your product's’ labels (or claims made by establishments you’re visiting!) and what they mean.


Organic Vs. Natural

Certified organic products have legal regulations, but “natural” doesn’t.

The “certified organic” label means that the food or product underwent stringent regulation. Qualifying a product to be organic means its raw materials should have no trace of “toxic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides, or chemical NPK fertilizers—and, in the case of animal products, no antibiotics or growth hormones.” The production, manufacturing, and handling of these items must also use organic methods.

Unlike the organic label, the phrase “all natural” or “100% natural” on a product isn’t regulated. The lack of legal definition can mean that these products are simply derived from nature—plants and animals—but are still chemically treated, possibly even harmful.

To clear any confusion, natural doesn’t mean organic or vice versa. This is not to say that all “natural” labels are false. As Birchbox mentions, “Botanicals like aloe, chamomile, shea butter, beeswax, and essential oils are all examples of natural ingredients.”

The key is to look closely at a product’s ingredients to verify its “natural” claim.


Zero-waste isn’t as simple as having no garbage.

Zero waste is a principle of reducing your waste to nothing—but it’s not as simple as having no garbage to dispose of. The zero-waste movement doesn’t start with controlling disposal—it starts by controlling consumption.

Going Zero Waste believes the answer is twofold: “We aim to send nothing to a landfill [or incinerators]. We reduce what we need, reuse as much as we can, send little to be recycled, and compost what we cannot.”

But after that, it’s about redefining the system. It promotes a circular economy, where trash becomes non-existent because everything becomes a renewable resource. This is achieved by developing a system that absorbs everything back to it—just like nature, it doesn’t produce any wastage.

This is different from the linear economy we have today where we consume resources and discard them afterward by dumping them or burning them.



A term given to products that are manufactured or developed by methods that do not involve experimentation on animals.

The use of the label “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” is used to denote that the company did not test their products on animals. However, we still lack legal definitions for these phrases, so upon closer inspection, they might not always hold up.

For instance, a cosmetic company claim being “cruelty-free” for not having tested on animals, but they can have ingredient suppliers or third-party labs that use animal testing.

“Cruelty-free” is also different from “vegan,” which means no animal products or by-products were used. All vegan products must be cruelty-free, while not all cruelty-free products are necessarily vegan.


Anything sustainable can, and should, be maintained at a certain rate or level.

The “sustainable lifestyle” has become a #trend. But truly sustainable development takes into account the future as much as the present human needs in every aspect of society. It involves an awareness that exploitation of current resources destroys the potential of the future—putting forward the best version of progress in terms of our way of life while safeguarding the planet’s support systems.

In 1992, the Brundtland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable progress as “[d]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."