You know the scene: you’re looking through a few items that you need to buy, and you notice an adjective or two emblazoned across the top of their packaging. This one claims that it’s 100% sustainable, while that one is rocking an eco-friendly stamp... You’re looking from product A to product B wondering what exactly each bold, italicized buzzword means and if one is better than the other... Been there, done that, got the fair-trade organic cotton t-shirt! I’ll take you on a crash course of the terminology around an environmentally friendly lifestyle and, as far as possible, contextualize it for you in terms of being a cat parent. Often one enviro-buzzword can’t be defined without using another so bear with me if you have to flick back and forward a bit!
A color, sure, but also a state of mind, green represents our world and all beings that live on it. It’s our forests, lands, oceans, and animals. Being green means being aware of the demands we place on our environment and acting on that knowledge. To lead a green lifestyle, a person has to know the impact of their choices on the planet, and live in a way that minimizes these impacts. To be green while raising a fur baby can entail selecting products, like kitty litter, that are less degrading to the environment, or opting for bamboo or cardboard items, over plastic. It can also mean keeping your cat indoors to protect local wildlife, or fitting kitty with a bell to give birds a better chance.
This is often used to mean a lack of pollutant. A clean product is one that hasn’t led to pesticides or petrol leaking into streams, or released a bunch of toxic fumes into the environment. Environmentally, ‘clean’ is most commonly referred to in terms of energy. Another word for the same might be ‘renewable’ - they’re more or less infinite and come from nature. Solar is the best known of these energy sources, converting the sun’s rays into power. There are some pollutants created in the production of the panels but, once up and running, they’re completely clean. Wind farms harness the movement of the gusts and breezes in the sky, while hydroelectricity is created through capturing the movement of water, either current or tidal. And there’s geothermal power, where the heat of the earth itself is converted into electricity. Tell me again why we’re still using fossil fuels, at all!?
Sustainable literally means ‘able to be maintained at a certain rate or level’. What this means in environmental terms is meeting the needs of today in such a way that the resources of tomorrow aren’t compromised. For example, bottom trawling style fishing, where great nets sweep the ocean floor, isn’t sustainable. This damages the environment so the fish stocks can’t return. But quota-based line fishing is sustainable, as the numbers are set to allow numbers to remain constant. The practice of ceaselessly deforesting the Amazon for pasture is not sustainable, as the rainforest is finite and can’t regenerate on land used for agriculture. For you to be sustainable alongside your pet might mean doing research into where your cat’s food is sourced, or only buying products that come from sustainable companies. Open Farm is one such US/Canada based company that takes their role as a sustainable supplier seriously.
This one is a bit tricky as its use is not directly regulated by any overseeing body. Toxic is defined in the Federal Hazardous Substances Act as “ it can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.” So non-toxic is… not that. Note this is only in reference to humans, though. Despite this, what is meant by non-toxic is that it’s not going to poison or sicken your cat through its consumption. Where you will want to look for non-toxic signs or stickers is in products your cat might ingest accidentally. Cleaning products and kitty litters are a good place to start. Even for non-pet specific products, but things you have around your home, like air fresheners, going non-toxic is the best way to keep your cat safe. We all know to ‘keep out of reach of children’ and since your cat is your fur-baby, well…!
Organic is a little word with a big legacy. Organic is usually used in reference to food, and its use is heavily monitored by a range of regulatory bodies. It means that artificial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides can’t be used in the growing process. It also rules out gene modification. The end product is a more naturally grown crop. There are many who believe organically grown food is healthier and, indeed, there is less chemical residue present on the produce. What is certain is that organic is better for the land the crops are grown on and usually for the animals raised in this way (no antibiotics or artificial hormones). It enhances biodiversity by not killing off all but the desired strain of plant, and improves soil quality. It does take more land to grow organic produce though, so the balance sheet isn’t entirely one-sided. There is a polarized debate going on in regard to organic vs. non-organic farming over carbon emissions and long term sustainability in a world with increasing nutrient demands. To be a more organic pet parent, if that’s your choice, will have you heading in the direction of organic foods.
A topic very close to my heart, fairtrade is a system rooted in improving equality and providing living wages to those who provide the products we consume. Directly from their site: “Fairtrade changes the way trade works through better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.” So when you buy fairtrade, the farmer or artisan that produced the item or product is guaranteed to have been paid a reasonable amount for their labor. These people are often small-scale farmers and workers at risk of having their profits swallowed by production costs. Fairtrade covers working conditions as well as financial considerations, and allows their farmers a say in the running of the entire operation. Supporting fairtrade gives back to marginalized peoples and communities, and ensures that more of your dollar goes to the worker, rather than the corporation. The words are thrown around a bit, so look for the blue, green and black logo, or research exactly what the company is meaning when they claim ‘fairtrade’.
Being conscious simply means to be aware of. The word is often used in compound adjective form with another word to signal what it is the person is aware of: health-conscious, environmentally-conscious, and so on. To be a ‘conscious consumer’ is one of the aims of the green movement, whereby we think about the things we eat, use and throw away, in order to cause as little harm to the environment as possible. There are many things we now find abhorrent that once didn’t even cause a blip on our moral radar. Think: using three plastic straws in one cocktail for a ‘fancy’ effect! A conscious consumer also considers the long term. This means buying clothing that will last longer than a few wears and washes, and which comes from a fairtrade or sustainable (or both) environment. It can mean recycling, reusing, repurposing. It can also mean buying pet products made from sustainable materials instead of simply what’s cute!
Ethical decision making revolves around doing what is good for all, rather than just what is good for you. Fairtrade is considered by most to be an ethical company, whereas a sweatshop in a developing country is not. The latter may provide you with items at a lower cost and in more convenient forms, but the former is probably more in line with your personal moral compass. Ethical decisions come into play in so many areas of our lives; from transport to trainers, from groceries to gadgets. There’s not a hard and fast rule on what is and what isn’t ethical, but if it makes you feel a bit guilty for buying (and not just coz you’ve already maxed out your cards this month) then it’s probably not that thing. A number of the words in this guide can help you in being a ethical cat parent, like sustainable, fairtrade, clean. One of the first ways is through the philosophy, and all round good rule-of-thumb, of ‘adopt, don’t shop’!
The Cambridge Dictionary defines eco-friendly as being ‘designed to do the least possible damage to the environment’. This is a very simple concept but one that is overused in many contexts. Because it’s a broad term, its use isn’t regulated. Some companies use it just to make their product more appealing to the consumer. These companies are often guilty of what is called ‘greenwashing’ whereby they make themselves appear environmentally conscious and focused while their practices are anything but! To navigate these waters in an eco-friendly manner, look beyond the branding and see what trusted regulatory bodies have given their endorsements. Alternatively, look through production methods or ingredients and their sources. It’s a bit more work that just accepting a label, but once you’ve got a range you and the planet happy with, you’ll feel a lot better for it!
If a product or packaging is stated to be biodegradable, that’s a good thing. It means that the material it is made out of will break down and decompose into natural elements. This needs to happen within a short space of time and should also happen in a landfill environment (not just exposed to weather on the ground’s surface). Examples of biodegradable materials are cardboard and hemp. Non-biodegradable is most plastics, though we have come a long way here and innovations are happening in the world of biodegradable plastics and packaging all the time.
Compostable is biodegradable, with a twist. All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable. Got it? A compostable substance must then provide nutrients to the earth once it has broken down. It’s not enough to be harmless; it must have a positive effect. Food, for instance is compostable, and lawn clippings. In production, there are types of packing peanuts made from a special styrofoam that are considered compostable. Tread carefully though, as some of these labels refer to commercial composting, and not the type you have down the garden for putting around the flowerbeds! Compostable substances need a special environment to do their work, as opposed to the landfill environment for biodegradable ones.
Carbon neutral is the term used for a product or a service whose carbon emissions are a sum total of zero or better. Though everything we do and consume on this earth has some impact on the environment, there are steps that can be taken to reduce this. A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon produced by an activity or company. Then to become carbon neutral, measures are taken like planting trees or funding renewable energy projects: things that will reduce the sum total of carbon put into the world. It’s a big idea with a lot of complexities but in short: it’s good.
Some of these terms are used interchangeably in the sale of products, though each has its own specific use. They do overlap in some ways, though, and usually will be more than one of the above! You can be an environmentally considerate cat parent through your use of cat-related products, or just in the way you live your life as a whole. Buying fairtrade chocolate, for instance, still has you on the right side of the scales. Once you’ve got your head around these terms, and their relevance to your everyday purchasing (or even specifically not purchasing) power, steering a clean, green course will be easy. You’ll be speaking enviro-buzzword in no time!