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In My Opinion: The Language of Sustainability

By: John Paro
Posted: January 10, 2008, from the January 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

I was at the grocery store recently and couldn’t help but notice just how many products are labeled “light.” What does “light” mean, I wondered. By strange coincidence, I overheard a child say, “Look, Mommy. Light ice cream.” “That doesn’t mean anything,” the mother replied as she walked on.

Today, we are bombarded with words like “green” and “all natural” and “sustainable,” all attempting to influence our buying behavior. But what do those words really mean? Crude oil is a naturally occurring substance, but it takes millions of years to form. By definition, crude oil is “natural,” but the use of crude oil is not sustainable. Similarly, extracting ingredients from plants may provide “natural” raw materials, but if rain forests need to be cleared to make room for those plants, the process is not sustainable.
Sustainability is the important concept for the truly green-minded individual to consider, and while complicated, consumers must be educated about sustainability if real environmental improvements are to be made.

The term sustainability addresses the entire process of bringing products to market. Are the raw materials derived from sustainable plant sources? If so, they are renewable. How much energy is required to extract and purify a plant-sourced raw material? If consumers knew that some natural products consumed more total energy to produce than their petroleum-based counterparts, would they make the same purchasing decisions?

Sustainability also recognizes that “biodegradable” and “recyclable” are both good, but we must differentiate the concepts. Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily recyclable, nor are recyclable plastics necessarily biodegradable. Both concepts are sustainable, however, and each has an important part to play in industries’ efforts to decrease our carbon footprints and affect lasting sustainable change.

The HallStar Company recently introduced an ingredient line called HallGreen for skin and hair care. Our goal was to start with plant-derived materials, preferably those that required minimal energy inputs and were sustainable. We wanted productive yields in order to limit the amount of necessary raw ingredients. We also needed to ensure against generated by-products that could contaminate the air, water or land.