Clearing the Air: What Does it Mean to Be "Eco-Friendly?"

By Marilee Nelson |

Clearing the Air: What Does it Mean to Be "Eco-Friendly?"

The term “eco-friendly” is used frequently on various products and services, but have you ever stopped to think about what it really means within the context of consumer goods, services, and your health? 

In today’s article, we’ll do a deep dive into what it really means to be eco-friendly, including how to avoid being confused by environmental buzzwords/misleading advertising and tips for reducing your chemical footprint for a healthier home and planet.

What Does “Eco-Friendly” Mean?

What does it mean to be eco-friendly, and what are eco-friendly products? According to the Oxford Dictionary, eco-friendly means: not harmful to the environment or trying to help the environment

When it comes to eco-friendly products or services, this meaning is usually self defined and there is no clear-cut understanding of what this really means..

At the bare minimum, a genuine eco-friendly product or service must be good for the planet and for people. It should also be made/grown/manufactured using environmentally-responsible practices requiring fewer resources and less pollution. We should look for these environmentally-responsible attributes in all the products, foods, and services we support. 

However, the term eco-friendly paints a pretty broad picture of what may be labeled eco-friendly. 

Even the Environmental Protection Agency warns about the generalization of the term eco-friendly. 1

For example, bottled spring water stored in recycled plastic bottles made with 25% less plastic may be considered eco-friendly because the product is made with less plastic, and the spring is responsibly managed. Yet, plastic in and of itself is not eco-friendly or human-friendly (think BPA, , phthalates, and hundreds of other chemicals that go into plastics) 

We’ll cover the subtle nuances of eco-friendly products, greenwashing, and how to vet authentic brands coming up.

A Short List Of Similar Environment Buzzwords

Eco-friendly isn’t the only environmental buzzword you should be aware of.

Some other examples of broad statements include:

  • Sustainable—generally refers to a product’s environmental impact, not its human safety
  • Eco-conscious—a very vague term suggesting a company cares about the environment
  • Eco-safe—means a product contains ingredients that won’t harm the environment
  • Green—an undefined way of saying a product or company takes environmental initiatives
  • Naturally derived—suggests ingredients have been derived from a natural source (plant, mineral, animal, etc.). However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been adulterated into an unnatural end-product.
  • Water-based—means a product has a water base…which could be full of harmful chemicals or all-natural ingredients.
  • Made with organic ingredients—can mean a product contains primarily organic, natural ingredients…or just a little bit of something organic.
  • From nature—similar to naturally derived, it can mean a product has ingredients that came from nature and were chemically-altered…or not.
  • Environmentally responsible—means a product/company takes environmentally responsible initiatives.

All these words may be used as an accurate representation of a company’s/product’s environmental efforts and values. And that’s how it should be! However, they may also be used to make a product look safer and more eco-friendly than it truly is.

The Importance Of Being Eco-Friendly

Why is being eco-friendly important?

It may sound like an obvious question, but there is much to consider here. For example, we often think about the importance of being eco-friendly in terms of big things like single-use plastics, the types of cars we drive, and the use of alternative energies.

Yet the simple choices we make in our everyday lives can have the most significant impact on the environment and our health.

For example, the cleaning products we use in our homes.

Cleaning products labeled: “poisonous” or “hazardous substance,” such as counter sprays, toilet bowl cleaners, laundry soap, dryer sheets, dish detergent, bleach, window cleaner, antibacterial wipes, etc., contain harmful chemicals.

These chemicals aren’t just harmful to the environment, although that’s a big issue. More important, every time we use cleaning chemicals, they are released into the air we breathe at home, the atmosphere, and our waterways.

This can lead to a slew of health issues in adults and children, including asthma, hormonal imbalances, fertility issues, developmental problems, lowered immunity, cancers, kidney damage, liver injury, and cognitive health issues (to name but a few).

And the environmental repercussions of exposure to household chemicals include:

  • Adverse effects on aquatic and wildlife. Poisonous chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, etc., seep into waterways, causing untold damage to fish and other wildlife.
  • Air pollution via toxic gasses emitted from chemicals mixing with organic matter and inorganic matter, and volatile organic chemicals (aka VOCs).
  • Water pollution from things like phosphates found in laundry detergent and dish soaps. These act as fertilizers, creating enormous algae blooms that deplete oxygen reserves and kill all life around them.
  • And copious amounts of waste from packaging also affect our air, rivers, streams, lakes, aquatic and wildlife.

This is a basic, high-level description of how cleaning chemicals impact the environment. To do this topic justice, we’d need to fill several novels!

The bottom line is that being eco-friendly is incredibly important to our health and the health of the plants, animals, and ecosystems around us.

How to “Go Green” In Your Household

The idea of “going green” can often seem so complex it puts people off. However, as we mentioned above, the simple choices we make in our everyday lives can have the greatest impact.

This will mean different things for everyone, but here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Buy Organic, Naturally-Grown Food As Much As Possible

Did you know conventional agriculture is one of the biggest threats to the environment? 2

From overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that emit vast amounts of carbon, it’s no wonder big ag has been singled out as one of the earth’s greatest enemies.

However, there are a couple of critical points that often get left out of this conversation:

#1: It is conventional, chemical-based agriculture that poses a threat. Not regenerative, small-scale organic, natural growing and ranching practices.

#2:  It is possible to feed the world another way.

As we learned from one of our favorite documentaries, Kiss The Ground, and our friend Katie Forrest (the creator of Epic bars), we, as consumers, have tremendous power to transform the trajectory of our food supply.

One of the best ways we can do this is by voting with our dollars by buying organic, naturally-grown, and (ideally) local food as much as possible.

It’s not as expensive or inconvenient as it used to be. 

And people often find they save money, or at least break even, by cutting out expensive processed/prepared foods in favor of real, organic foods and cooking more at home. Also, when you buy direct from the farmer, you can save a lot. Sites like make connecting with local resources a cinch.

For more information, check out: Regenerative Agriculture And What We Learned From Kiss The Ground and How To Eat Clean On A Budget.

Watch Your Water Usage 

Water usage may not cross your mind if you do not live in a drought-stricken area.

However, given the globalization of supply chains and future concerns about water rights, now is an excellent time to get frugal about your water usage.

Here are a few creative ways to optimize your water usage:

  • Don’t leave the water running when…washing your hands, lathering up for a shower, brushing your teeth, or doing the dishes. 
  • Set a timer for your showers. Ten minutes is usually enough time to get it all done and relax a bit.
  • Consider installing a simple water collection system to catch rainwater and use it on your plants, landscaping, etc.
  • Upgrade your water-using appliances, such as dishwasher, washing machine, water heater, etc., to energy- and water-efficient models as you’re able.
  • If you’re a gardener, learn how to use regenerative and sustainable agriculture practices to build soil health. These soil-enriching techniques will allow your soil to hold more water, so it doesn’t require as much watering.

Avoid Fast Fashion

Have you heard of slow fashion? 

Like the slow food movement, it was developed in response to conventional or fast-fashion practices, which are responsible for over 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and millions of gallons of wasted water per year. 3

Plus, fast fashion brands tend to be made of cheap synthetic fabrics containing chemicals harmful to humans and the environment.

Common examples include: 

  • Flame retardants—are carcinogenic and disrupt the brain, thyroid, reproductive system, and entire endocrine system. 4, 5
  • Plastics or “poly” fabrics release phthalates into the air and microplastics into our water systems when washed. This means we wind up drinking these plastics!
  • Formaldehyde—is a “complete carcinogen” found in wrinkle-free, easy-care, anti-static garments. It’s also an asthmagen, skin irritation, and eye, nose, and throat problems. It is part of the chemical process used to deter wrinkles in clothing. 6, 7
  • Waterproofing and stain-resistant chemicals—also known as “forever chemicals” or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been linked to ADHD, infertility, increase in bad cholesterol levels, preeclampsia, birth defects, heart disease, cancers, and developmental issues in children.8 , 9

Instead, opt for slow-fashion-forward brands that use natural plant materials such as organic cotton, wool, silk, linen, hemp, and cashmere.

Buying used clothing is also a wonderful way to be more eco-friendly. If you don’t have time for thrifting, sites like ThredUp and Poshmark make buying used clothes ultra-convenient (and fun!).

Just make sure you off-gas the clothing if it has a strong laundry fragrance. Learn more in: How To Choose Healthy And Sustainable Clothing.

Limit Plastics And Other Disposable Products

If being more eco-friendly is your goal, then plastics must go! Or at least be drastically reduced at home.

Here’s how to create a more plastic-free home environment:

More reading: How To Be More Sustainable In Your Daily Routine.

Watch Out for Greenwashing

We’ve mentioned this previously, but it bears elaboration given the prevalence of misleading advertising in the eco-friendly space.

Greenwashing refers to a company’s efforts to make their products or services appear more environmentally- and human-safe and responsible than they really are.

Greenwashing is used extensively throughout the industries of nuclear power, building, plastic, bottled water, timber, oil, natural gas, pharmaceutical, agriculture, fashion, travel, hospitality, beauty, and natural products (to name a few).

Some red flags to look out for include:

  • Buzzwords and broad statements (like those listed in previous sections).
  • Lack of third-party proof/certification.
  • Images of nature can convey a false sense of environmental stewardship/safety.
  • False labeling. Sometimes companies will just make up statements or even badges.
  • Hidden trade-offs give the illusion of a more significant environmental/health benefit than is accurate. For example, a water-based product that is full of chemicals.

When vetting eco-friendly products, look for the following certifications/badges:

We discuss this topic in-depth in: Are They Greenwashing?

Learn How Branch Basics Can Make Your Home More Sustainable

Being eco-friendly means taking practical steps to help protect the environment in your everyday life, like committing to a cleaning refill model! When we take these steps, we are rewarded with a healthier planet and therefore a healthier home and body. 

To learn more about Branch Basics, check out our free Toss The Toxins Online Course and browse our human-safe, MADE SAFE®, EWG-Verified Cleaning and Laundry Starter Kits.

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.