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What It Means to be Sustainable and Not Just "Green"

Sustainability has become somewhat of a trend these days. Being “green” or eco-friendly is sexy and cool, and why shouldn’t it be? We nurture our families, friends and loved ones, why not do the same for Mother Nature?

But the word sustainability means different things to different people. Brands, and even individuals have used the term without truly giving thought to what it means or the value it holds.

What’s the difference between being green, eco-friendly, or sustainable anyway?

Let’s dive in and find out.


  • The Brundtland Commission (formerly known as the World Commission on Environment and Development) defines it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

  • The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as “everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

  • Paul Hendricks, Environmental Responsibility Manager for Patagonia says the company doesn’t have a formal definition but “we see it more as a journey toward building a regenerative business that not only lives within its means, but creates a net benefit for the environment and society. Not just mitigating harm, or just being neutral.”

What all of these definitions have in common is the goal towards building a better future, and having environmentally sound standards for the greater good and benefit of society and humanity.

For me, sustainability is about adopting a lifestyle which does not deplete or damage the earth’s natural resources. I keep my carbon footprint as low as possible by reducing and reusing and avoiding single use items. I believe that being green or eco-friendly is encompassed within sustainability.

But, there is no right or wrong definition. Sustainability can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you are a conscious consumer who is aware of your environmental impact, you’re certainly on the right track.

So, what does it mean to be “green” then?

Going or being “green” is another fluid definition.

When you Google “how to go green,” here are some examples of what comes up:

  • Reduce energy use

  • Reuse and recycle

  • Save water and take shorter showers

  • Buy used instead of new

  • Avoid single use plastic water bottles

  • Dispose of electronics properly

  • Bring reusable bags to the grocery store

All of these are fantastic ways to start your sustainability journey and become more aware of your consumption habits.

However, hardcore environmentalists will tell you this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, some brands are using the terms green or eco-friendly loosely, so much so that there is a name for it: Greenwashing.

Investopedia defines this as “conveying a false impression that a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they really are.”

An example is the famous Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” scandal which involved the use of software to cheat in emissions tests so they could seem more environmentally friendly. It ended up costing the company over $30 billion in lawsuits. Nestle is another example of this phenomenon. The company boasts about its use of renewable energy and recyclable packing, but meanwhile, they are one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution in the world.

How to go from eco-friendly to sustainable living

The fact that you are reading about how to be more sustainable means you’re already at step one! A great next step is to do an informal audit of your typical day and what your consumption looks like. Start from when you wake up in the morning—think of things like the toothbrush you use, the toothpaste tube, and perhaps your daily contact lenses in plastic film.

Consider your morning coffee, the lunch you purchase. If you stop at a grocery store on the way home from work, how many items can you find that don’t have access packaging?

It might seem overwhelming once you realize just how much disposability and single use is in your daily routine. We all get comfortable and create habits, brands and companies have even encouraged us to live in a culture of convenience. But, the good news is, once you’re aware of these habits you can start to make changes! Mindfulness and intention is the key to success.

Once you’ve made some of these small changes and they become a part of your lifestyle you can start to think about making bigger adjustments. Maybe you bought a reusable water bottle, stainless steel straws, and never walk into the grocery store without your totes and produce bags. You. Are. Amazing. Celebrate these victories and feel good about the fact that you are making moves and becoming more sustainable everyday.

When you’re ready for the bigger adjustments, consider composting (which actually isn’t as intimidating as it sounds), buying local food and produce, or perhaps shampoo and conditioner bars that don’t have any packaging. Once you start it can actually be quite fun to figure out new ways to cut down on waste!

How to get started

That last thing we want is for you to finish this article and feel anxious about all the things you need to change immediately. Compartmentalize and tackle one issue at a time. And keep in mind, it really is impossible to go completely plastic free and live zero waste.

These are all great first steps:

  • If you haven’t already, invest in a reusable water bottle and coffee cup.

  • You’ve probably heard that eating less meat and dairy is a good way to reduce your environmental impact. Try “meatless mondays” and then slowly move to a couple of days a week sans meat or dairy. Milk alternatives like almond milk or oat milk are also super common nowadays so making the switch is easy!

  • Shop local farmers markets for your produce. The delicious fruits and veggies are grown within 5 - 200 miles of the market site. That means fresh food with low emissions!

  • Bring reusable bags and produce bags to the store. Keep a couple in your purse or backpack in case you go on an impromptu grocery run.

  • Many large grocery stores have a bulk section so you can fill up on dry items like rice, nuts, or granola instead of buying them in plastic packaging. Mason jars are great to fill and store those goods!

  • Buying used is way more environmentally friendly than buying new. Go check out a thrift store, or explore online shopping sites like Poshmark and ThredUp.

Remember, being more sustainable is not about drastically changing your lifestyle, it’s about implementing small changes that will turn into habits. Start with baby steps and slowly but surely they will become giant leaps!

Written By FitPro Speaker and Founder of Zero Waste NYC Workshop, Nicole Teran Click here to learn more about Nicole.

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