Green Glossary

The ability of a material to decompose through natural processes and eventually be reabsorbed by the natural environment. Biodegradable products include all plant and animal material, paper, food waste and fibers. Plastic, glass and metals are not biodegradable. However, even biodegradable materials will not break down once they are buried in a landfill because they are deprived of oxygen, which is necessary for decomposition. Composting provides optimal conditions for biodegradation. The "Biodegradable" label on products like cosmetics, cleaning supplies, packaging or household items is not necessarily reliable because it is not verified and follows no uniform standards.

Also known as "environmentally friendly" or "nature-friendly," eco-friendly refers to goods and services that inflict minimal harm on the environment.

Fair Trade:
Crops produced according to principles in which poor farmers in developing countries receive fair prices for their products, workers enjoy safe working conditions and fair wages, communities receive development assistance and investment in social programs and crops are grown with sustainable farming methods and without the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Products labeled as "Fair Trade Certified" are verified and audited by an independent certifier. Fair Trade Certification is currently available in the United States for coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice and vanilla.

The adjective used to describe people, behaviors, products, policies, standards, processes, places, movements or ideas that promote, protect, restore or minimize damage to the environment.

Purely defined, natural means anything found in nature or derived directly from plants, animals or minerals. Natural products do not contain any man-made (synthetic) ingredients. On food, "Natural" or "All Natural" labels are not meaningful because the federal standard is weak. The USDA will allow a product to be labeled "natural" if it is free from artificial ingredients, added coloring and heavy processing. Natural does not mean organic.

Organic fabrics and textiles:
Plant and animal fibers like cotton, wool, hemp, linen, cashmere, silk, jute, soy and bamboo can be certified organic if they are produced according to organic standards set by the USDA. However, the organic label does not guarantee that the finished fabric or textile product is free of synthetic chemicals, bleaches or heavy dyes. The Organic Trade Association certifies finished textiles and garments in the United States.

Organic meat, dairy, poultry, eggs and other livestock products:
Organic animal products come from livestock that are fed organic feed and forage throughout their lives, beginning in at least the last third of gestation before birth. Synthetic hormones, antibiotics, chemicals and genetic engineering are prohibited. The living environment must be stress-free and promote the health and well-being of the animals, as well as prevent the contamination of air, land and water. For a livestock product sold in the United States to be labeled organic, it must meet USDA standards and be certified by third-party accredited inspectors.

Organic produce:
Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, lentils, etc. produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and with farming techniques that protect soil quality, minimize erosion and actively prevent the contamination of air, land and water. For an agricultural product sold in the United States to be labeled organic, it must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and be certified by third-party accredited inspectors.

Plants or crops grown without the use of chemical pesticides for controlling weeds, insects, slugs, grubs or rodents. This label is not equivalent to organic and is not verified by an independent or government standard.

Materials destined for the garbage dump but were, instead, rescued and refurbished as a new product. The floor of an old bowling alley can be reclaimed and turned into a dining room table, or bricks from a demolished structure can be used to build a fireplace hearth. The use of glass shards in ceramic tiles is another example of the use of reclaimed material.

Materials that have been taken from one product and made into a new product. The recycling process generally saves energy and reduces the need to extract additional raw resources from the earth. The most commonly recycled products in the United States include paper, glass, steel and aluminum, all of which can be reincarnated as the products they were recycled from. Plastic is also recyclable, but it goes through a process known as downcycling. When a plastic water bottle is broken down for recycling, the quality of the plastic material is diminished, and it is no longer fit to become another water bottle. Instead, it may become filler for a fleece jacket, carpet fibers or a park bench. Packages with Post-Consumer Recycled Content are made from materials that were recycled instead of being sent to a landfill.

Resources that can be replenished quickly after use so that they are not permanently diminished or depleted. Renewable energy sources include the sun (solar power), wind, flowing water and geothermal heat. Renewable material resources include algae, grasses and some fast-growing trees. Substituting renewable resources for nonrenewable resources (e.g., coal, oil, gasoline and other fossil fuels) is the key to sustainability.

Meeting the needs of the present without diminishing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability also means that human practices do not result in the permanent damage, alteration or depletion of the environment, ecosystems, species or natural resources.

The soybean is the food staple of choice for many vegetarians and those with lactose intolerance due to its high protein levels. Soy is useful beyond food, however, and soybean fiber can be used to make everything from baby clothes to sweaters.

Materials that do not occur naturally but rather are produced artificially through chemical processing. Most synthetic products (plastic, nylon, polyester, polystyrene, etc.) are made from petroleum byproducts, while synthetic components of food, personal care products and pharmaceuticals are produced with chemicals in a laboratory.

"USDA Organic" (label):
Product contains at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. The remaining 5 percent can be nonorganic or synthetic, as long as they are approved on the national list (

"USDA Made with Organic Ingredients" (label):
Product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The remaining 30 percent must be approved on the national list.

"USDA 100 Percent Organic" (label):
Product contains only organic ingredients.