Sustainability discourse has started to get pretty convoluted with terms that companies and brands can use without really having to hold up their end of the sustainable deal. What does it mean that my shampoo is “all-natural”? How do I know if this really is Fair Trade? Thoughtful has created A Guide to Green Terminology to help you as a consumer not only to better understand what you are buying, but also to better understand what you are being sold. Thoughtful is a non-profit, online index of Black-owned brands, which you can explore here

Soon, Thoughtful will have a feature indicating which brands are sustainably or ethically sourced, but buying from black-owned business is contributing to an equally important, related kind of sustainability: an economic sustainability that seeks to uplift black entrepreneurs and creators.

Carbon Neutral

Also often referred to as ‘Climate Neutral.’ There are a variety of certifications available for this. This is related to CO2 emissions. It means that a business has calculated the carbon footprint of each product, from production to shipping, and purchased carbon offsets to ‘neutralize’ these emissions; or, that their entire model already uses renewable energy. Carbon offsets can include things like funding wind farms or forestry projects.

Zero Waste

In commerce, this is usually talking about the use of recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging and products.

For online shopping, this can mean that the box and packaging you receive with your product are either recyclable or compostable.

Be sure to do your research with this one since there’s not a ton of regulation in this area–See what the company says specifically about their products and shipping practices.

Certified Organic

These are products certified by USDA in the United States. Products can be Certified Organic when they do not use: 

  • Prohibited fertilizers and pesticides 
  • GMOs
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones

USDA Organic products are not necessarily sustainable.


Usually refers to ‘plastic’ products that are made from plant-based materials as opposed to petroleum. There are a variety of certifications for this.

Biodegradable is not the same as zero waste. There are often specific conditions that allow these products to break down that don’t happen when they are sent to a landfill, recycling plant or end up in the ocean.

Usually, these products should go to a compost facility.

Fair Trade

These are products certified by Fair Trade Certified™. 

Fair Trade products have requirements around worker’s rights, fair labor practices, and responsible land management. They have been audited through the whole supply chain.

They also have strict requirements on environmental protection and sustainability, which is ingrained in their mission for equitable trade practices. 


This is an unregulated label, so products labelled ‘Sustainable’ often require extra research on your part to find out what the environmental impact really is.

The general goal of sustainable products are items that do not harm the environment through their production, use, and disposal. 

This can be manifested through initiatives such as carbon-neutral or zero-waste packaging, Fair Trade certification, products made from reclaimed wood or bamboo, and much more. 


This is an unregulated label, and the definition is far-reaching. 

Natural products are products that contain ingredients that are found in nature, and are not man-made.

If you want to know if your natural product is sustainable, you will have to do more research on the company to find out if they also utilize green business practices.