What’s In A Word? Green vs. Sustainable

Do words matter? If you answered yes, then what do these terms mean? What does green mean? What does sustainable mean? Well, your guess is as good as mine. No, really…we are all exposed to so many green labels (products, homes, cars, technology, etc.) that it is no surprise that we each come to the party with different variations on the theme. We could debate until the cows come home whether or not the overuse of these two words still hold any value. Or, even how far we need to go to get there. I would like to believe green and sustainable do have value. It seems even more important, as the grim realizations of our dependency on oil in the Gulf has become a painful indication that we need to get our act together and change our ways for the survival of our planet.

It seems like the right time to revisit theses two concepts. That’s why I’m getting out my magnifying glass and taking a closer look at the process of living a green or more sustainable life.

On a surface level, green means environmentally-friendly. Which is to say that whatever the origin of the product, home, clothing company, etc. is, it places less of a burden on our declining natural resources of land, air and water. Green also encompasses less waste. How much less? Well, that seems be on a spectrum that can become the basis for wonderful new ways to live. But, it can also open us up to the ugly, gray world of greenwashing.

Sustainability carries both a broader and narrower meaning. On the broader sense, it references how we are all inter-connected and how we work together towards our collective future. All of our economic, political and social gains in this area thus far, have come from a heightened awareness of what is sustainable for the future. On a narrow level, sustainability is far more encompassing than green. It addresses the individual environmental choices, and the process of discovery that include the health and wellbeing of our selves as individuals, and our planet. Knowing this, we must be aware that our decisions towards what will make us sustainable right now just may determine how our children, our grandchildren, and beyond will live.

We learn very simple new ways of addressing and discovering new ways to become greener (or more sustainable) on an individual level everyday. In fact, last night I was preparing whole wheat pasta for dinner and thought, “Couldn’t I cook the pasta with less water, saving energy and water?” Not being the most accomplished cook, I generally follow rock star cooks. What would Mario Butali, and all those others wonderful Italian cooks think? Butali says for every pound of pasta, we need to boil six quarts of water. I checked around online and found a New York Times article that outlined experiments that addressed the question of cooking pasta with less water. Here’s what it found: “Americans cook something like a billion pounds of pasta a year, so those minutes could add up…rough figuring indicates an energy savings at the stovetop of several trillion B.T.U.s. At the power plant, that would mean saving 250,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil, or $10 million to $20 million at current prices.” Wow, those are significant numbers for such a small individual act. Oh yeah, the pasta was just as tasty with less water.

We discover zillions of stories like this each day. Is there a lesson in the pasta story? Maybe becoming sustainable is the part of the process of living a green lifestyle. Or, maybe sustainability is finding answers to those questions that will guild us towards a new eco-enlightenment. I don’t have the ultimate answer, but I sure hope we figure it out for our future generations.

As we continue to move towards making collective, ethical choices about the condition of our planet that we want to leave our children, should we be taking these two words to heart? What does green and sustainable mean to you? Are they mutually exclusive? Do you have a personal story of eco-enlightenment?


Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Cathy S.
Cathy S.7 years ago

Less consumption and more recycling are key.
Good article!

Jan C.
j C7 years ago

I have learned to be very wary of the term "green." There is actually an apartment complex that uses the word "green" in its new name, clearly IMPLYING that the building's design is green. It's not (unless you count the name and the green paint used on the sign!) Green buildings are the rage here, but architects have to go through special training and firms have to receive a special accreditation to put a green lable on their designs. The criteria is very strict. It's too easy for advertisers to carefully choose their words to mislead the public.

Be vigilant!

Rachel Robbins
Rachel R7 years ago

Thanks for the interesting article! It's often tricky as a consumer to know what these words, and others like them, mean! For example, I recently bought Eco-bananas even though I didn't really know what that meant. You inspired me to go look it up and I'm glad I did! (And yes, I would buy them again but now I know why. :)

Lorna S.
Lorna H7 years ago

If people cut down on their consumption of beef, and only bought grass fed or organic cuts,failing that tried shopping at local butchers, this would help save the flatlands and plateaus in the Cerrado, which are being cleared to make way for soya plantations to fed the cattle, because there isn't enough pasture to keep up with the demand.
Soy is not the only problem palm oil is another, tropical forests in Borneo and Sumatra are being lost, home to the endangered orang-utan. This is not sustainable!
Surely green and sustainable sit side by side?

Lorna S.
Lorna H7 years ago

You could grow your own organic vegetables in your garden without the use of pesticides (Green) But to keep planting in the same plot over and over again would strip the soil eventually of all its nutrients this would not be sustainable. Although if you rotate your crops and use natural fertilisers, you could have the best of both worlds.

Ron Bakker
Ron b7 years ago


Kirsten B.
Past Member 7 years ago

Very interesting. Thanks for reminding us about the importance of the choice and use of words.

Jan Billy Pedersen

Thanks for the info :)
the comments were very interesting as well,
and Thomas T.
"Microwave ovens are banned in Russia for health reasons."
No they are not, they were banned in 1976, and so where Colour televisions, Blue Jeans, and Silicon breasts.
The ban was lifted during Perestroika in the 80s.

Eileen P.
Eileen P7 years ago