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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCD chapter.

We are so used to throwing around words that we think have the same meaning — that being “green” is the same thing as being “sustainable” when in fact they are very different. I didn’t even know the difference between the words “ethical,” “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” etc. But that’s okay! Although these may just be words we use loosely in our conversations, it does impact our subconscious understanding of the environment. In our collective effort to slow down climate change and keep our Earth healthy, it is important to understand the real definitions of these terms and how to use them to better our knowledge so we can utilize them in our daily lives. 

“Ethical” vs “Sustainable” 

We often see these two words interchangeably when talking about fast fashion versus slow fashion. More times than not, many believe that ethical and sustainable mean that the way the garments are made are from recycled or organic material and the factories that produce them are treated well — the factory workers are paid enough, and the conditions of the factory aren’t fuming with harmful chemicals. While they do go hand-in-hand, the word “ethical” refers to the integrity of the worker’s environment at every stage of the process. As re/make, an online community that advocates for more humane practices in all aspects of the fashion industry, states, “ethical fashion is human-centered: its critical lens assesses how every process in the supply chain impacts garment workers.” On the other hand, “sustainable” focuses on the environmental aspect of production. What material is the garment made of? Is it possible to reuse recycled bottles to make a pair of shoes? These are the critical questions that need to be answered. 

Sign at a climate change protest
Photo by Markus Spiske from Unsplash

“Biodegradable” vs “Compostable” 

These words are another example that is used to describe a better alternative to recycling. Although they are very similar in concept — they both break down more easily and quicker than plastic — they do have different meanings. The word “biodegradable” means anything plant-based, animal-based, or natural mineral-based can decompose in a more organic process. They do, however, break down at different rates depending on the material and how much it has been processed. On the flip side, the word “compostable” means that the product can break down into its natural elements in a compost environment. Compostable products can break down up to 90 days, which is much faster than non-compostable items. The key difference between the two is that all compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable. From Nature’s Path Organic, “Although biodegradable materials return to nature and can disappear completely they sometimes leave behind metal residue, on the other hand, compostable materials create something called humus that is full of nutrients and great for plants. In summary, compostable products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit. That is, when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants.”

Other important words and phrases to know:


Staying green is an all-encompassing word that describes anything concerned with protecting the environment. It is a very broad term that does not have many guidelines that people need to follow. 

light up globe levitating over a person's hand
Photo by Greg Rosenke from Unsplash

“Carbon Footprint”

Our carbon footprint is an essential phrase to learn and understand. It is a measure of our direct and indirect carbon dioxide usage and how both impact the environment. With this quantitative number, we can see how much we are polluting and can make clear plans to slow down our carbon footprint.  

Kristen is currently a third-year studying Communication and minoring in Technology Management at the University of California, Davis. She enjoys spending her spare time making new memories with friends and family as well as a relaxing night alone at home. Her future career goals include going into the marketing business field.
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