Decoding Eco-Friendly Terms: Sustainability, Cruelty-Free, Eco-Conscious, Clean, and Greenwashing

Even though scientists and environmental experts have warned about the dangers the beauty industry poses to the planet, it has only recently become a mainstream concern, much like the awareness of environmental issues in the field of domestic cleaning.

A rising number of companies in recent years have made claims that they will lessen their environmental impact when creating new products. This issue arises because every corporation defines “sustainability” differently. Numerous of these businesses market themselves as “eco-conscious,” giving consumers the impression that buying their goods helps the environment.

To clarify the meanings of various labels used in the beauty industry, here’s an environmental glossary.


Broadly speaking, sustainability encompasses the capacity of something to persist over an extended period. In the beauty industry, it often relates to addressing climate change issues – biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, air and plastic pollution, through sustainable practices. Notably, smaller eco-brands with a sustainability mission have been the primary drivers of this movement, while multinational brands often use the term for profit.


Many corporations use “cruelty-free” and “vegan” to convey their eco-consciousness. However, this does not necessarily reflect sustainable labour practices or supply chains. The “cruelty-free” label certifies that a brand is vegan, meaning its products contain no animal products, animal by-products, or animal derivatives. But sometimes, these labels certify vegan products, not entire companies, which can be misleading. As a consumer, you might unknowingly support a brand producing non-vegan products trying to expand its customer base. “Vegan” and “cruelty-free” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t always mean the same thing. The “cruelty-free” label implies that a product, its ingredients, and formulations underwent no animal testing at any stage of development and manufacturing. These terms differ from “eco-friendly,” “eco-conscious,” or “green,” which solely address animal ingredients and animal testing, while eco-friendly products focus on the planet’s overall health and resources. Not all “vegan” and “cruelty-free” products are eco-friendly.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “eco-conscious” as marked by or showing concern for the environment. Many companies in the beauty industry make the claim that they are “eco-conscious” or “eco-friendly”. It is evident that they have considered sustainability during the manufacturing process. However, this often occurs at a surface level, with a primary focus on ingredients, while aspects such as supply chains, packaging, operational costs, and labour practices are overlooked. According to studies, the toxicity of cosmetics is steadily rising. Brands that want to be sustainable must learn more about the sustainability movement.


The term “clean” is often used interchangeably with “natural” to indicate that a product contains only natural ingredients. Due to limited legal standards and a lack of benchmarking, these terms can be misleading. Beauty products do not require FDA approval before entering the market. With no official standards to guarantee claims’ quality, product labels can include “clean” or “natural”, even if these ingredients comprise a small percentage. Essentially, the term “natural” may appear on the package but not necessarily in the product. Another term synonymous with these is “green,” which is equally misleading. Ingredients labelled as “clean,” “natural,” or “green” often have questionable supply chains, negatively impacting the environment due to extensive product transportation.


Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, “greenwashing” refers to brands making eco-friendly claims without supporting them with eco-friendly practices. Today, brands still engage in greenwashing by incorporating words like “clean,” “natural,” “green,” “organic,” and “bio” on their labels. Many product packages are single-use, generating significant waste despite containing “clean” and “natural” ingredients. Even when brands introduce “eco-friendly” initiatives with recyclable packaging, they may overlook the impact of the plastic or glass colour used. Due to inadequate regulation enforcement, greenwashing is increasingly common in the beauty industry.

Is there a specific one that’s better than the other?

When considered broadly, sustainability emerges as the most accurate and effective term among these labels. “Cruelty-free,” “eco-conscious,” and “clean” do not necessarily guarantee that a brand is genuinely environmentally responsible, whether in the beauty industry or domains like domestic cleaning. In contrast, sustainability focuses holistically on a product’s production, encompassing how, where, by whom, and what it’s made of, aiming to create products that optimally benefit the environment without causing harm.

How can we help the environment in our small way?

There are several actions that individuals can undertake. However, individual efforts may not suffice, as corporations remain the primary contributors to environmental pollution. For instance, despite reduced carbon emissions of only 6.4% during the COVID-19 lockdown, largely due to reduced car usage, big corporations are the main source of air pollution. 

To hold beauty corporations accountable and make environmentally conscious choices, consider the following practices:

Check product labels

 Look for eco-friendly brands prioritising clean ingredients, ethical sourcing, eco-friendly packaging, and sustainable shipping processes. Certifications such as The Leaping Bunny Seal, The Rainforest Association frog logo, and the COSMOS certification indicate genuinely eco-friendly products. Portals like The Soil Association and Environmental Working Group publish lists of toxic ingredients to help you identify non-clean products.

Stay informed

Stay updated on the beauty industry’s impact on the environment. Learn about brands genuinely committed to ecological efforts by reading articles, listening to sustainability podcasts, and following green-living bloggers and influencers. Familiarise yourself with harmful ingredients in cosmetic products and their synonym words, and check product labels for these indicators.

Support small businesses

Support small businesses, including those in the realm of domestic cleaning. Small and local beauty businesses have been the first ones to push forward sustainability initiatives and practices in this industry. They not only include truly sustainable ingredients in their products but usually impact the environment much less in terms of transportation. Businesses focused on a sustainable and eco-friendly approach are more important than ever before- especially within the beauty and domestic cleaning industries. Not only does this promote environmental consciousness, but it also encourages responsible practices too.


When you analyse the complex landscape of eco-friendly beauty products in depth, it’s evident that words like “sustainability”, “cruelty-free”, “eco-conscious”, “clean”, and even “greenwashing” can be misleading. When considered broadly, “sustainability” emerges as the most accurate and effective term among these labels. Both in the domestic cleaning and the beauty industry, every one of us has the ability to make more informed decisions and improve the environment. By researching brands, staying informed about harmful ingredients, and supporting small businesses prioritising sustainability, we can align our choices with our environmental values. Аs businesses continue to be major contributors to environmental pollution. It is imperative to understand that real change also necessitates holding them responsible for their actions.

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