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Ethically Made, Ethically Sourced, Fair Trade, and Eco-Friendly: sustainable living terms explained

Do you ever get confused by all of these eco terms that seem to be thrown around willy-nilly? Yeah me too! Good job that today we have the lovely Sue from EarthfulEnlightenment.com explaining a few of them for us today! I hope you enjoy this super informative article and a massive thank you to Sue for the time and effort you put into this.

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Over the past 10 years or so, there has been growing concern of eco friendliness and damage that humans are causing to the environment.  With more attention being put on this concept, all sorts of new and existing terms have been in the forefront in our news and everyday life.

Luckily, there are many resources about these terms that can break them down to understandable concepts.  

Four terms, Ethically Made, Ethically Sourced, Fair Trade, and Eco-Friendly are labels used by companies to tell the consumer whether their product is a sustainable choice.  These terms are what zero waste consumers look for when deciding if a product fits into their eco-conscious lifestyle.

Because these words are meant to serve as a guide for consumers, the terms should be clarified.  The definition of each is different, and the difference lies in the exact wording.  All four are positive factors in our society, and they outline the ways that certain products on the market make a difference in our environment.

The Green Movement Begins

To better understand these terms, you should know about the “Green Movement” and its origin. There are conflicting opinions on the date.  For example, many people believe that the environmental movement began with the publishing of the book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 which informed readers of the harmful effects of pesticides on the ecosystem. 

 In fact, during my research for this article, I was able to find at least 3 different opinions about when the green movement started.  

Some believe that the book, “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson started the movement.  It is through this book that Johnson coined the term “zero waste” to describe how she and her family revamped their lifestyle so much that they could fit a year’s worth of their waste into one jar.  Her book has been the starting point of many families’ journey toward living a more sustainable life.  I’ve listened to the audio version of this book a few times, it’s so full of pertinent information.

It may be surprising to learn that as far back as the 1800’s, scientists and geologists wrote harrowing accounts about the impending destruction of the earth at man’s hands.

After several more accounts regarding this exact concept, as well as more scientific evidence supporting this theory, it’s difficult not to be aware of man’s impact on the environment. 

The rise in our awareness has led to more businesses taking steps to adopt this idea, sometimes because business owners wish to reduce their effect on the destruction of our planet and the depletion of natural resources. 

But unfortunately, in some cases businesses label their product as “green” to increase their profits.  Nowadays, as consumers are more aware of the impact of non-green items, they are driving the market to make a more positive impact on the earth.

When thinking about large corporations and even small businesses, I think of the rise of terms to describe their more earth friendly practices.  The most the green products are ethically made, ethically sourced, fair trade, and eco-friendly.  But these buzz words are rarely defined for consumers.  They therefore require more attention from the sustainable community.  The definitions of these terms sometimes overlap, but not always.  Continue reading to see what I mean.

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Ethically Made

Ethically made, in simple terms, is the manufacturing of goods without causing harm to the environment, as well as to the lives of workers.  We are now aware of the impact of pollution on the earth and steps are sometimes taken by companies to reduce their pollution levels.

The second part of the definition refers to the treatment of workers within factories.

To simplify, we consider products made by slave labor and unsuitable working environments to NOT be Ethically Made. 

In many countries, there are some factories that force their workers to work for more hours than is physically acceptable.  Their factories’ conditions are also below what one would consider humane. And workers are paid very low wages, which keep them in poverty and make them more dependent on their jobs.  Even young children and elderly are forced to enter this work force to receive the necessary payment for a family’s bare necessities.  Further, workers often suffer from disease and health conditions that are caused by the unsanitary workplace.  These workers are not paid for the time that they take off because of these conditions.

In 2013 a clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,134 workers, and injuring 2,500 others.  The building, better known as Rana Plaza, housed five garment factories.  The building was not sufficient to handle the thousands of people that were working inside.

In addition to stress of having so many workers and machinery, the building collapsed.  Another factor leading to this tragedy is that the building was constructed of faulty materials. In fact, the day before the collapse, a crack appeared in the building and an inspector was called to evaluate the safety of those working in the building.  The inspector warned the owner that the building was unsafe. Regardless of the warnings however, garment factory owners still forced workers to show up to work and do their jobs.  The sad result is known as the Rana Plaza Tragedy.

This occurrence was publicized throughout the world and it brought to the forefront the harmful effects of unfair practices in poverty stricken areas and countries.

The justification of operating factories that fail to meet standard conditions and needs of the

workers is keeping product prices very low. These products are exported to other countries including the U.S.

After this tragedy, companies all over the world started to take steps to operate a more ethical operation.  Thus was the birth of the term “Ethically Made.”

For an item to be ethically made, its manufacturing process must involve fair labor practices for workers, and little to no environmental damage from their operation.  By definition, factories must greatly lessen their environmental impact.

But an item under the umbrella of being ethically made does not absolutely mean that it is made of environmentally friendly materials.

For example, synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, rayon, and spandex all cause microplastics to enter the groundwater during washing.  For more in-depth information about this, check out my post here. 

But if they are manufactured in an “ethical” factory, they are still considered to have been ethically made.  And herein lies the difference between Ethically Made and Ethically Sourced.

Ethically Sourced

An ethically sourced product is one that is made of biodegradable materials.  These ingredients in a garment for instance, must have been obtained without causing harm to the environment.  Also, no pesticides or other chemically altering substances can be present during the growing process.

Organic items are considered ethically sourced because they are grown in a controlled environment, or one that causes no harm to the surrounding areas or natural resources.  Organic cotton is an example of an ethically sourced material.

Also ethically sourced includes such natural fibers as flax, hemp, linen, and silk.  Wool is also considered an ethically sourced item in some instances.  If it is being obtained from sheep that are living in a “factory farm” setting, that item is not considered ethically sourced.

In addition to the ethical origin of materials, items must be produced in a factory that has little harmful effect on the environment.

In this way, the terms “ethically sourced” and “ethically made” are dependent upon each other.  But it is possible that an ethically MADE item may not be made of ethically SOURCED materials.

There is a lot of confusion between these two terms, as well as with the terms Fair Trade and Eco-friendly.

Fair Trade

Many products claim to be FAIR TRADE.  The most common item I can think of that bears the label is coffee.  To understand why you should purchase these items, you must understand what “fair trade” is.  

Merriam Webster defines fair trade as “a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the fair treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices.”

From this definition you can assume that the article you are considered for purchase has been made by workers in a humane environment and that they are receiving fair wages that lessen poverty in the manufacturing area.  You can also assume that the producers, such as farmers and landowners, are receiving a fair price for their goods.

This helps to lessen the price gouging that could otherwise occur between Western countries and third world countries.

But fair trade is based mostly on prices and wages.  The goods that are produced are not always ethically sourced.  And the environmental benefits of the Fair Trade market are debatable.

In the Huffington Post, an article titled “10 Reason fair trade coffee doesn’t work”,

The Post cites the cons of Fair Trade coffee.  According to this article, “Several recent studies by researchers at Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California indicate that fair-trade coffee has small to negligible effects on coffee growers, especially the poorest ones.”  

The article goes on to explain that to become Fair Trade certified impoverished farmers must pay a sum of money that they cannot afford.  The FLO, (Fair Trade Labelling Organization) and Fair Trade USA set requirements for an item to be labeled “Fair Trade.”  In order to sell products in the fair trade market, landowners in developing countries are required to adhere to certain conditions.  

Side note:  Coffee is only one of the products that are classified as Fair Trade.

According to an article by Colleen Hait of Stanford titled The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee”, the certification of those farmers and landowners whose products are legitimately called Fair Trade, have passed a certification process that:

“requires producing organizations to comply with a set of minimum standards “designed to support the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in the poorest countries in the world.” 2 These standards—31 pages of general and product-specific standards—detail member farm size, electoral processes and democratic organization, contractual transparency and reporting, and environmental standards, to name only a few. Supporting organizations, such as Fair Trade USA, in Oakland, Calif., ensure that the product is properly handled, labeled, and marketed in the consuming country.”

And thus far, there has been no evidence that the Fair Trade practice is financially beneficial to farmers in these third world countries.

There is no requirement demanding that the Fair Trade items must be grown in a manner that is eco-friendly.

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Ecofriendly, Eco-Friendly, Eco Friendly

Whichever of the above spellings you use to describe eco-friendly products, the definition is the same.  According to Merriam-Webster, the term eco-friendly describes an item or a practice that “is not environmentally harmful.”

In today’s market, finding eco-friendly alternatives to products that harm the environment is relatively easy.  With exception to items that are greenwashed (“Greenwashing involves companies either misleading consumers about the green credentials of a product or service, or misleading consumers about the environmental performance of the company as a whole,” says Brophy Haney.)

With the growing interest of consumers in eco-friendly products, some companies label their items as eco-friendly when they are not.  This often happens when companies create something that is earth friendly and they package the item in plastic.  This is the easiest way that you can weed out greenwashed items.  Bamboo toothbrushes are frequently greenwashed.  They are often packaged in plastic.

Some companies also claim to use eco-friendly manufacturing processes, or they claim to support the environment by donating profits or by participating in some environmentally friendly practices.  For example, some companies state that they will plant trees when their product is purchased.  

How do you know if companies stand up to their claims?  Normally, if a company is truly eco-friendly, they provide complete transparency on their websites or other publications.  Therefore, if you wonder if a company is eco-friendly, most of the time you just need to check their website.

Even this is not fool proof however.  Some companies’ manufacturing processing claims are very vague on their site.  In this case, you can do an internet search to find more information about the company. With the awareness of environmental impact, there are more articles published that list companies that are eco-friendly.  On the other hand, there are many articles about unsustainable businesses.

Or you could contact the company yourself to inquire about the label of earth friendly or eco- friendly products or manufacturing practices.

If a company representative cannot answer direct questions about the steps their company takes to be able to label its products eco-friendly, then it is probably safe to assume that the company is not truly engaging in eco-friendly practices. Again, the truly environmentally safe companies are proud to reveal the positive steps they are taking to provide eco-friendly products.

Because the terms Eco-friendly, Ethically Made, Fair Trade, and Ethically Sourced are now so popular in our consumer driven society, these terms are unfortunately used by companies to boost sales.

What does all this mean to us?

If you are a shopper who is concerned about positive change in the marketplace, you can do your own research about products’ legitimacy.  

And knowing the difference between these four very popular sustainable living terms will help you to decide whether to buy an item or not.

In my personal experience, now that I am aware of the environmental impact of manufacturing, I seek eco-friendly products.  As I have been living a zero waste lifestyle for the past few years, I just automatically recognize a product as eco-friendly or not.

I have made mistakes in the past, including purchasing a bamboo scrub brush with a plastic rim to clean my dishes.  Since, I have switched to using a completely earth friendly dish brush from a sustainable shop online call The Conscious Consumer.  This company has an online store that offers only eco-friendly products.  

I also steer clear of items that are in plastic packaging, whether they claim to be earth friendly or not.

It has become a way of life for me and my family and we are happier to be making a positive impact on the environment.

You can do the same.  As one person, you may not think that you can make a difference, but we are living in a consumer driven world, and your dollars count.  If you do not purchase items that are not environmentally friendly, companies are forced to meet the demands for these products.

And that’s a win-win if you ask me!  

Are you on a zero waste journey, or are you trying to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle?  If so, please feel free to comment on this article.  

Do you have more ideas or methods to help you quickly determine the environmental friendliness of a company or product? Please share it in the comments.  Your information can go a long way in helping readers to successfully live an earth friendly lifestyle.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Sue from EarthfulEnlightenment.com

I’m a lifestyle blogger.  My blog is about our family’s experiences in our zero waste journey.  We’ve been living sustainably for 2 years now, and we learn more everyday.

I like to share our experiences and knowledge, along with motivating our readers.  And there’s a little bit of personal stuff thrown in once in a while too.

We are a regular family, living in a rural area in Pennsylvania in the U.S. 

I thank Lottie for this opportunity, and hope you enjoy this article!

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