Jargon Watch: Eco-Friendly Terminology

Jargon Watch: Eco-Friendly Terminology

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Environmentalists throw around a lot of terms like “organic,” “palm oil-free,” and “biodegradable.” Today, I want to break down some of this eco-friendly terminology to make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about the environmental impact of our hair products.


  1. Certified organic
  2. GMO-free
  3. Biodegradable/Compostable
  4. Certified B Corps
  5. Palm oil-free
  6. Vegan

1. Certified Organic

As a former member of my university’s Real Food Challenge team fighting for more organic and humane food, this is a term I’m well-acquainted with. Although many people believe “organic” has to do with how healthy a food is, it actually refers to how a plant is grown. To be USDA certified organic, products need to be grown without man-made chemical additives, including fertilizers and pesticides. In many cases, “conventional” (a.k.a non-organic) farms leach these chemicals into the ground or nearby waterways, leading to harmful effects on the environment. They can also cause harmful affects to the health of farm workers who pick the food. (See the whole Roundup cancer controversy.) Also, certified organic products cannot contain GMOs – more on that below.

The USDA organic seal next to the E.U. organic seal.

Side note: terms like “natural” are NOT regulated by the USDA, meaning that anyone can put that on their package and it does not mean anything. A general good practice is to look for an official seal. (Though be careful here too, since companies sometimes make up their own emblems that look like seals.) 

2. GMO-free / Non-GMO

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are fairly self-explanatory. They’re plants that have had their DNA modified in a lab. As you’re probably aware, GMOs are a controversial topic. I’ll share my personal philosophy with you here, for your consideration.


Non-GMO project verified seal
Image from https://www.nongmoproject.org/

I am personally of the belief that we could not feed everyone on our planet without GMOs and in many cases GMOs are safe to eat. However, I do try to avoid GMOs because they are primarily produced by by Agro-businesses like Monsanto that are practicing … One common genetic modification is to make plants that bare fruit without seeds or with seeds that cannot be saved and regrown. This means farmers are completely reliant on these companies and cannot become self-sufficient. In many cases, buying GMO seeds is the most economically viable option for farmers, but by choosing not to buy GMOs you can take power away from Monsanto and similar companies.

3. Biodegradable + Compostable

“Biodegradable” is a term that has been getting a lot of attention lately, on my social media feeds at least. The reason is because “biodegradable” is basically meaningless – it just signifies that a product will eventually break down into smaller pieces. The keys here are the vague-ness of “eventually” and “smaller.” There’s no set time limit for a biodegradable product to break down, so it could be in 100 years. And the smaller pieces that the product breaks down into might just be microplastics or other toxins.

A better term to look for is “compostable.” From Earth911: “Compostable means it breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate similar to paper and breaks down into small pieces in about 90 days, and it leaves no toxic residue.”

4. Certified B Corporation

SheaMoisture is a certified B corp, uses certified orangic and fair trade ingredients, and practices cruelty free testing.

This is a little different than the other terms, as it applies to companies rather than specific plants/products. I’ve talked about B Corps before because I LOVE them. B Corps are scored on social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. This means that they don’t just prioritize profits, they also consider ethical concerns and environmental impact. Seeing the B Corps logo is a quick way to know that a company has been verified by a third-party. If you want to take this a step further, you can go to the B Corps website and see how a company scores on Governance, Workers, Community, and Environment. You can also go even further to read their assessment to learn more specifics about why they earned their score.

5. Palm Oil-Free

This term seems to have become popular within the last couple years. (Google Trends shows a considerable spike in November 2018.) Palm oil’s infamy stems from its impacts on rainforests and Orangutans. Primarily in Southeast Asia, palm oil is farmed by clearcutting rainforests that are home to the critically-endangered Orangutans. For this reason, many environmentalists and ethical shoppers look for palm-oil free products.

I talked about palm oil a little in my DIY African Black Soap shampoo post because African black soap is made from palm oil. The brand of African black soap I chose – Alaffia – specifically uses Orangutan-safe palm oil. The soap is crafted in Western African, where palm oil trees are native and there are no Orangutans! Check out that post for more on why I love Alaffia.

Photo of a palm leaf, red palm kernels some cut open, and a bottle of palm oil.
Photo from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/by_the_way_doctor_is_palm_oil_good_for_you

6. Vegan

Finally, another term close to my heart as I used to be vegan and look forward to the day when that’s feasible for me again. When it comes to diet, there are three main reasons people choose to be vegan: health, environment, and humaneness. In hair products, environment and humaneness are still applicable, but I’ll leave the humane discussion for another time. Looking at an ingredients list, it might not be look like there’s meat or cheese in your shampoo, but actually some of the chemicals might be derived from animal sources like dairy proteins. 

Factory farming is hugely detrimental to the environment. Of course, there’s the classic cows-farting-methane argument. In addition, livestock are a leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon to make room for grazing and growing food for the animals. Also, the waste of factory-farmed animals in the U.S. is a huge cause of ocean dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, where the runoff from the Mississippi River has caused the water to be so devoid of oxygen that fish cannot survive. Cowspiracy, a documentary on Netflix, is generally a good resource on the environmental impact of conventionally-grown livestock. For these reasons and so many more, vegan ingredients are generally a better choice than their conventional counterparts.

A vegan diet saves an animal's life, 45 pounds of grain, 1100 gallons of water, 30 sq feet of forested land per day.
Image from Pinterest. If it's yours, let me know so I can give you credit!

Side note: “Vegetarian ingredients” in a beauty product is basically meaningless. I think it’s just a marketing ploy for people that mean well but maybe don’t know the difference between vegetarian and vegan. Vegetarian just means “no muscle meat,” which you wouldn’t expect to find in your moisturizer anyway. (Looking at you, Alba Botanica.)


I hope this post helped informed you about some common eco-friendly terminology used by environmentalists. I’ll try to link back to this post whenever I use these terms, so this page can continue to be a resource for our sustainable curls journeys.

Also, stay tuned for more of this Jargon Watch series! I’m planning posts for curly hair terms and ethical beauty terms in the near future!

What are your thoughts on organic, non-GMO, palm oil, and vegan products? Let me know in the comments!

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