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Many consider the ’60s and ’70s to be the real beginning of the environmental movement, with the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Programme in 1972.  However, in recent years, the focus on protecting our planet has been an increasingly discussed topic. New information, better technology, alternate research and trendy lifestyle blogs seem to spring up constantly. This excess of information can make living your own environmentally conscious lifestyle difficult. Even the terminology looks designed to be confusing.

Let’s look at one of the biggest confusion culprits: Green vs. sustainable.

The Misconception

People may use the terms “green” and “sustainable” interchangeably, although they don’t mean the same thing. The words are similar in intention, with both focusing on a desire to protect the Earth and its natural resources, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Green

Webster’s Dictionary defines green as, “concerned with or supporting environmentalism.” This makes a lot of sense to anyone who’s ever used or heard the term, but the big point here is the definition’s vagueness. How and why something gets classified as green isn’t covered. The area becomes even murkier when you consider the heavy use of the word in company marketing and product labeling. Right now, there just aren’t any hard and fast rules for the use of the word “green” in marketing.

The EPA has attempted to rectify this issue by working with independent standard developers to create a system for classifying products. This includes creating what the EPA calls “ecolabels,” which allow consumers to quickly see the environmental impact of potential purchases.  ENERGY STAR is an example.

Currently, participation in this process is optional for companies that label any portion of their products, services or mission statement as green. Guides have also been created, but the EPA states that “these guides largely address when and how very specific and narrow environmental attributes can be claimed, not how to construct a broad-based environmental standard or ecolabeling program.” Green as a description of products and services is just too vague to effectively regulate at this point.

Sustainable

The word “sustainable” doesn’t have the same definition issues. While the term “green” reflects the environmental movement in general, “sustainable” has clear-cut criteria built right into its definition. Sustainability takes the notion of green to the next level and challenges us to look deeper. Webster’s Dictionary describes it as, “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” For a product, service or action to be considered sustainable, it cannot use any resource at a rate in which the resource is unable to be replenished. If a product uses bamboo and the company cuts down the bamboo faster than it can grow back, then the product isn’t sustainable.

The Lifestyle

With these definitions in mind, striving to be completely sustainable through movements such as Zero Waste is far more easily understood than it is undertaken. Sustainability has set requirements that going green doesn’t. There’s no wiggle room with the term.

However, that doesn’t mean striving towards a sustainable future isn’t worthwhile. Adapting our choices and mentalities is an important first step. We can be green while we all work towards being sustainable. Some may choose personal goals like switching to LED lightbulbs and installing water efficient showerheads. Others may choose more involved methods, like working towards a neutral carbon footprint. No matter how you decide to get started, consistency and knowledge are key. Protecting our planet is a goal we all can work towards, even while we’re still trying to get the differences between the terms straight.

How do you help to protect the environment? Share your story in the comments.

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