The New Lexicon: 23 Ethical Terms Explained

What’s clean beauty? Sustainable vs ethical fashion? Vegan vs plant based living? Find all core ethical terms explained here!

By Diane Small

What are you wearing right now? Are your shoes ethical or eco friendly? Did your last holiday involve eco-tourism, or was it an ethical vacation? Are you a vegan, or plant based?  

The truth is, all things ‘green’ are rapidly growing in popularity, and with that comes a vast expansion of vocabulary – a lexis that most of us are kind of vaguely familiar with, but probably couldn’t give a good definition for if pushed. Yet never fear – Eluxe is here to help!

We’ve compiled all the most frequently used terms (and a few new ones), and asked journalists, designers and fashionistas to help us come up with the clearest definitions for each. The result? We’re calling it the Ethical Girl’s Dictionary for Modern Living. And whether you consider yourself an expert on all things sustainable or are still striving to become more ethically aware – this is the perfect read for you.  

The New Lexicon: 23 Ethical Terms Explained

ethical terms explained

1. Plant based beauty

Our first of these ethical terms is easy to explain. Basically, it’s any beauty product that uses plants as their base. Consumers tend to associate plant based beauty with veganism and natural beauty products.

What to watch for: Check the labels to ensure there are no hidden nasties – after all, this term implies plant based, not 100% plant created.

Try: Companies such as 100% Pure or Juice Beauty plant based products at their best – think: mascara coloured with black tea, berry and cocoa pigments to lavender and avocado conditioners.  

2. Vegan beauty

Beauty products that contain no animal parts are vegan. You might not even know some of these products. For example: lanolin (a fatty substance from sheep’s wool used in moisturisers), concheal (a beetle used to colour cosmetics), or beeswax (often used in lipsticks or cosmetic pencils). Vegan cosmetic brands also never test on animals.

What to watch out for: A lot of brands may be vegan (hello, Kylie lipstick!) but they’re still packed with nasty, harmful chemicals that can hurt your health.

Try: Inika, Emani, Zao Beauty and others supply organic makeup that’s certified vegan, halal and cruelty free, too.  

3. Clean beauty

Clean beauty is pretty self-explanatory. Products that have been made without toxic ingredients, ensuring that all substances are ethically sourced and consider the environment. They may use some chemicals, but these are the kind that have had no proven harmful effects on human health.

What to watch out for: Clean beauty brands may not be harmful to our health, but they make no claims to be vegan.

Try: XYZ Beauty makes safe, effective skin creams; Jurlique is another great brand with a wide range of products.

4. Organic beauty

This is one of those ethical terms that’s seriously abused by marketers. In some countries, like the USA, if there’s even one ingredient that’s organic, they can use that word on the label! Organic beauty products normally carry a certificate from their country of origin that ensure consumers that their ingredients are derived from organically farmed ingredients that use no harmful herbicides, GMOs, or synthetic fertilisers. What qualifies as ‘organic’ may vary from country to country.

What to watch out for: Products that are organically certified can also be non-vegan friendly, since they may use organic honey, or even ‘organically raised’ sheep’s lanolin.

Try: Pure Skin Food, Art Naturals, Tabitha James Kraan

5. Natural beauty

This is a really loose term that has been used to describe anything from brands that have 1 or 2 ‘natural’ ingredients, to those which make you look ‘naturally beautiful’ – i.e. by giving you a ‘nude’ makeup look.

What to watch out for: This is a really general term that can basically be applied to anything.  

6. Non toxic beauty

Like ‘Natural Beauty’ above, there is no legal guideline to how this term can be applied. Basically, it can be used to describe anything that’s not oozing with radioactivity!

What to watch out for: This is a really general term that can basically be applied to anything.

7. Clean eating

This term means you’re trying to avoid eating over-refined and processed foods, as well as caffeine, sugar, alcohol and other consumables that provide empty calories. Instead, clean eating involves consuming alternatives such as natural grains, vegetarian proteins and loads of fruit and veg as much as possible.

What to watch out for: This term is pretty loose and flexible, and can apply to vegan and non-vegan diets both.

ethical terms explained

8. Veggan

No, this isn’t a spelling mistake! A veggan refers to someone who follows a normal vegan diet, but chooses to eat organic, free range eggs. The term first appeared when people began claiming that the normal vegan diet lacked in protein, and that eating eggs helped improve this deficiency. The average egg contains 13g of protein, which is 24% of the recommended daily allowance for women.

What to watch out for: The choice to become a veggan however, depends largely upon why this diet was adopted in the first place, whether it was for ethical or health based reasons.  

9. Vegan

In addition to not eating meat, vegans also avoid any products derived from animal origin, such as eggs, honey and dairy products. Many vegans will also only use cosmetics, or wear clothes and accessories free from animal products. With online searches for the term ‘vegan’, rising more than 250% over the past 5 years, this lifestyle is one that will no doubt only gain in popularity!

What to watch out for: A vegan diet isn’t necessarily always a healthier option. As with any diet, it depends on what you eat. For example, eating cakes, donuts and vegan burgers all day and washing them down with  a Coke is just as bad for you as eating the non-vegan versions! Not all vegan fashion is planet friendly, either. See Vegan Fashion below for details.

Try: Visiting Kristen Leo’s awesome YouTube channel to get vegan lifestyle tips.

10. Vegetarian

Basically, vegetarians are people who don’t eat meat, chicken or fish, but will eat cheese, eggs and honey. If only fish is eaten, they’re called ‘pescatarians’. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, unlike vegans, eat both dairy products and eggs, making it the most common form of vegetarian diet. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, and ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products, similar to a veggan. Confusing, right? But at the end of the day, all eat a plant based diet – that’s to say one that’s based mainly on – but not exclusively – plants.

11. Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion is one of those ethical terms that’s pretty loose. There are lots of ways a brand can be sustainable. They can use recycled, upcycled, renewable (i.e. wool or leather), plant based (organic or not) materials. Vintage fashion, thrift stores, swishing and swapping clothes are considered sustainable ways to ‘do’ fashion. Increasingly, the dyes used in clothing define whether it is sustainable or not, as it becomes more and more apparent that clothing dyes can harm the earth, as well as human health.

Sustainable fashion isn’t always the same as ethical fashion – for example, H&M make a conscious collection from natural, earth friendly materials, but they also build shops on occupied land and use sweatshop labour.

Sustainable fashion isn’t always all that eco friendly, either – for example, making clothing from upcycled plastic waste actually harms our oceans (but some would consider it sustainable because it’s doing something with rubbish).

What to watch out for: Many debate the sustainability of animal based textiles, as the animals consume so many resources, and because some consider the practice of using animal products cruel.

12. Ethical fashion

This term mainly relates to the working conditions of garment workers and their human rights. Ethical fashion considers factors such as whether or not workers were paid living wages, the consistent employment of certain ethnic groups and the preservation of ethnic textile making traditions.  

Try: Checking out any brands that support Fashion Revolution, from large brands like Stella McCartney to smaller ones like Fashion Compassion.

13. Eco fashion

Eco fashion describes fashion that considers the environment above all – but this can be done in several ways. For example, not only are the materials considered, but the distance they need to travel to be manufactured is, too. So, organic cotton grown in India and shipped to LA for assembly? Not so eco! Eco fashion also involves using natural, biodegradable materials like wool, silk, cotton and hemp. All fabrics are dyed with natural tints, and no toxic chemicals are involved in the construction of the garment.

What to watch out for: Greenwashing – see below. Be aware that eco fashion isn’t always vegan (and vegan fashion isn’t always eco!). Also note that a new part of Eco fashion is Clean Fashion – that is, fashion whose fabrics, dyes, finishes and other components won’t hurt your health.

Try: People Tree. They only use organic cotton and other eco friendly materials

ethical terms explained

15. Plant based fashion

This is simply clothing made from plants. These options include a ton of fibre possibilities, from organic cotton, hemp, cork, linen, bamboo, Tencel, or even banana, orange or pineapple leaf fibres.

What to watch for: There’s lots to consider here. For example, cotton uses tons of water to grow, and bamboo needs a load of chemicals to make the fibres soft and smooth. Your best bets? Hemp, and those fibres used from recycling food waste from bananas, oranges and pineapple leaves.

Try: Piñatex shoes by NAE vegan and cork bags by ONO Creations.

16. Vegan fashion

Any fashion that avoids animal products like leather, wool, alpaca, or fur is vegan. However, a lot of vegan fashion is made from some seriously nasty synthetics, like PU or PVC. So what’s an earth conscious vegan to do? We say: plant based fashion is the way ahead!

What to watch out for: PVC is one of the most harmful materials known to man. Avoid at all costs!

Try: Cork handbags like these, or shoes made from breathable Pinatex, like these ones by Po Zu.

17. Ethical jewellery

This is one of the hardest ethical terms. There are all kinds of certifications out there that try to ensure consumers that a brand’s jewellery is ‘green’ – but you have to be careful. For example, Kimberley Process certified diamonds was created to protect consumers from buying ‘blood diamonds’ – but it has proven to be full of flaws on this front, and also doesn’t ensure the diamond was mined without harming the Earth (ALL diamond mines do, in fact, harm the environment in some way). The same problems plague eco gold and ethical gold – both ensure that children are not employed in the mines, and that cyanide and mercury used in gold mining are minimised or not used at all. But again, these certifications don’t mention anything about the impact of the mines’ creation on local landscapes, rivers and wildlife.

Ethical ivory jewellery also has issues. Mammoth ivory and tanga nuts are used as substitutes, but the fact is that both ‘ethical’ alternatives may only serve to increase demand for the real thing. We need to stop making ivory jewellery socially acceptable in any form – even when it’s ‘ethical’ ivory. Only when there’s a stigma attached to wearing the stuff will demand for elephant tusks end.

Try: Buying your jewellery from jewellers who recycle old metals and gems like I Do Now I Don’t. If you have gold and silver jewellery and gemstones you don’t wear, take them to a professional like Ana Katarina to be restructured into the accessory of your dreams!

18. Transformational travel

There are a lot of ethical terms in the realm of travel, too. This newish phrase refers to the kind of travelling experience that literally changes your life. It should change your perceptions, and maybe your body, too. Transformational travel experiences usually include meditation retreats, silent retreats, yoga getaways, bootcamps, or just spending time immersed in nature or spending time with indigenous people who share their wisdom and customs with you.

Try: There are lots of incredible experiences waiting for you with eco tourism companies like Atlas Unbound, who don’t tell you where you’re going until you’re almost there, or through hotels like Inkaterra, where you can explore mystical Machu Picchu with their experienced guides.

19. Eco Travel  

A small-scale travel alternative, eco tourism is all about being as kind to the earth as possible. It often involves visiting fragile, natural areas in an attempt to promote conservation. Examples could include: gorilla spotting in Uganda) or staying in hotels that have minimal impact on the planet. That could be thanks to their use of greywater systems, local building materials, solar panels, organic amenities and such. Good eco tourists should also try to travel with a minimum CO2 footprint. Try offsetting flights, and using local buses and bikes when you arrive. The overall aim is to preserve naturally beautiful destinations to protect them for future generations.

20. Ethical travel

As a form of sustainable development, ethical tourism is aimed at reducing the harmful effects that standard, mass tourism has upon the environment and the people of tourist destinations. For example, it would mean staying at a locally owned hotel instead of an international chain, and eating local food instead of in global fast food joints.

Ethical travel also involves your behaviour – it means not encouraging tourist traps that harm local wildlife (like swimming with dolphins in enclosures, riding elephants, etc) or degrade locals (like bargaining them down to the bone in bazaars and markets – that extra dollar you shaved off the price means more to them that to you!)

Some also argue that to be an ethical tourist, destinations with oppressive regimes like those in Saudi Arabia or Israel should be avoided, as the taxes you pay contribute to the repression of certain groups of people by these governments.

21. Sustainable travel

A blanket term that refers to both ethical travel and eco travel.  

Watch out for: Greenwashing here. A lot of hotels give you the option to have towels and sheets washed only on demand (as opposed to daily). That’s regular practice now; hardly a move towards being ‘eco’! Demand more!

22. Clean sleeping

The term clean sleeping, like clean eating, is aimed at removing anything that might be obstructing a healthy mind and body. Recently called ‘the biggest health trend of 2017′ by Gwyneth Paltrow, clean sleeping follows a regime that allows for at least 1 hour with no technology before bedtime, at least 10 hours without caffeine, and a few other rules. Poor-quality sleep can lead to bad moods, weight gain, impaired memory and reduced immunity, so no wonder this is now ‘a thing’.

23. Greenwashing  

This is one of the most important ethical terms to understand. Greenwashing is the practice of making claims that a brand is earth-friendly just to increase sales. There are plenty of brands out there that use packaging, slogans and other marketing techniques to lead consumers to believe that they’re ‘natural’ or ‘kind to the planet’ when they’re nothing of the sort.

They may also make special claims, such as being ‘paraben free’ or ‘cruelty free’ – when this is actually the legal requirement for ALL brands in the countries they sell in (as is the case for all of the EU). Another way brands greenwash is by highlighting their (tax deductible) charitable contributions towards a cause, whilst doing nothing to actually help it beyond throwing cash at it. Examples of brands that greenwash include Estee Lauder, Vivienne Westwood, the Body Shop and Lush.

Well, that’s it! What do you think about these ethical terms explained? Would you change any definition? Let us know in the comments below!

Diane Small
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