Sustainability Glossary: What Do These Eco Buzzwords Really Mean?

It's Easy to Get Confused By All the Terms

eco friendly buzzwords

The Spruce Eats / Brianna Gilmartin

Lately, it feels like everyone is telling you to eat more sustainably, but what exactly does that mean? Is it just going vegan? Only buying organic or locally grown? Choosing the cage-free eggs? Or was it the free-range ones...

With all these green buzzwords cluttering the aisles of your grocery store, becoming a more eco-friendly eater can quickly feel confusing. How do you sort through all the jargon? That’s why we’ve consulted experts to find out what you actually need to know about eating sustainably and what you can stop worrying about. 

First, let’s define sustainable eating. According to Honor May Eldridge, Head of Policy at the Sustainable Food Trust, a U.K.-based environmental organization advocating for an internationally sustainable food system, eating sustainably means choosing food that was grown in a way that benefits nature and doesn’t harm the environment. Simple enough, right? But Eldridge also adds that sustainable food is more than just produce without pesticides. “There’s the public health side, where eating sustainable means choosing healthy and nutritionally balanced food, and there’s the critical social justice element of supporting the livelihood of farmers that help rural communities thrive.”

So what does all that look like? That’s where the eco-buzzwords come in. While “farm fresh” may seem like a green seal of approval, terms like this often mean a whole lot of nothing (and come at a higher price for no reason!). Here are the labels to look out for and ones you can leave behind.

All Natural, 100 Percent Natural, and Responsibly Sourced

Unfortunately, as often as these appear on food packaging, none of them signify anything green. “Companies can slap these terms onto any packet without any burden of proof,” says Eldridge. “This can fool customers into thinking that they are purchasing healthy or sustainable food.” As a rule of thumb: avoid counting on terms like these that are not accompanied by any type of certification as they provide no guarantee that what you’re eating is better for anyone.

Certified Organic

As for keywords with real regulation by the government, here’s one that you should actually pay attention to when possible. According to Eldridge, by supporting organic farmers you can help create a ripple effect of health and environmental benefits. “The underlying principle of organic farming is healthy soil and healthy soil is essential for food security, mitigating climate change, and public health,” she says. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, usually made from fossil fuels, Eldridge explains that organic farmers use practices that will improve soil health, like crop rotation (healthy soil needs nutrients from a variety of plants) and closed-loop farming (where all organic matter is recycled back into the soil). 

Fair Trade

You’ve probably seen these words on bags of coffee, bananas, or chocolate bars—and there’s a reason for that. Over the years, as the global food system has continued to expand, larger food businesses and corporations have gained more control over land, explains Eldridge. The result? Many farmers, especially in southern countries, have been driven off of their land to make way for huge plantations run by large companies. “This has damaged local food sovereignty, affecting people’s ability to grow their own food,” she adds. By choosing products that are marked fair trade (look for this seal), you’re helping to make sure the people who produced your food are treated and paid fairly, which helps reduce the number of people experiencing poverty over time.

Local, Locally Grown, or Sourced Locally

Another often spotted—but sadly empty—term is anything with the word “local” in it as there is zero regulation as to who can or cannot use this word on their packaging. However, if you’re fortunate enough to live near a farmers’ market or have access to a Community Support Agriculture or CSA service, actually eating local is a great way to be more sustainable. 

For Wen Jay Ying, founder of New York-based CSA Local Roots, eating locally is not only more energy-efficient, but it also tastes better. “At Local Roots, we define ‘local’ as no more than two hours away. In other words, anything we get from our farmers has such a short commute from the farm to the city,” Ying explains. “This means after your produce has been harvested, it doesn’t spend days in transit, which means more nutrients intact for you. And since it’s moving between fewer hands, it’s cleaner, more flavorful, and less of it is wasted.” Ying also reminds us that eating locally doesn’t only help reduce massive emissions from transportation, but it also means eating seasonally: “This helps diversify the nutrients your body gets. Plus, chances are higher that more of your food is fresh.”

CageFree, Free-Range, Pasture Raised

When it comes to choosing meat and eggs, knowing what the most sustainable option is can get a little tricky. For example, chickens that are cage free (a term technically regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture) don’t necessarily have more space than non-cage-free chickens, says Eldridge. “Even if they aren’t in cages, the chickens can still be crammed inside sheds.” And while terms like “free-range” or “pasture-raised” may be slightly better for the birds, they can also be equally ambiguous. Your best bet: look for the latter terms in conjunction with an animal welfare certification.

There are a few major third-party organizations that set guidelines for regulating a company’s animal welfare practices, including Human Farm Animal Care (which uses this Certified Humane seal) and A Greener World (look for this Animal-Welfare Approved label). Of course, consuming less meat overall is always a great way to eat more sustainably. In fact, going meatless just one day a week could eliminate the emissions equivalent of driving over 1,160 miles!

With all that in mind, remember that being a greener eater doesn’t have to be overwhelming—nor do you have to do it perfectly to make a difference. For Ying, the easiest way to get started is to choose one food you really love or buy frequently and begin learning about best buying practices for that item. “Start with a guideline that’s important and accessible to you, whether it’s going organic or buying local produce. Whatever step you make is a start—which is a huge step for the world.”