Sustainable vs Green Materials: What’s the Difference?

It is common in the construction and manufacturing industries to come across terms such as green building, sustainable materials, and other variants of "green" and "sustainability". These two words are often used in place of one another, but the reality is that they are not interchangeable and do not mean the same thing. 

In a nutshell, while sustainable materials can be considered green, not all green materials are sustainable.

Regulation in the usage of these terms is currently minimal, and manufacturers tend to call their products “green” or “sustainable” when they technically may not be. Bodies such as the EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency) have come up with ecolabels such as the ENERGY STAR to help consumers quickly gauge the environmental impact of products. However, enforcement of this initiative is still ambiguous.

Green materials are renewable, naturally occurring, and do not directly contribute to the pollution of the earth. Sustainable materials take into consideration much more than the constitution of the material or its environmental impact. It involves other factors, such as how the material is produced and transported, and how these processes, in turn, affect the environment, the economy, and society as a whole.

In this article, you will learn about:

  • What green materials are
  • What sustainable materials are
  • The similarities and differences between sustainable and green materials

Wooden construction

What are green materials?

Materials are classified as green materials solely based on how they intrinsically affect the environment. This classification does not take into consideration any other secondary or indirect factors that have to do with the material. 

Naturally occurring materials (such as wood), ceramics, glass and composite materials are common examples of green materials. Green materials have the following characteristics [1]:

  • High recycled content and/or high recyclability
  • Made from rapidly renewable sources
  • Very low emissions that contribute to global warming and ozone depletion
  • Minimal to zero pollution to the environment

The requirements for green materials are relatively easy to comply with compared with sustainable materials.

Wind Turbines in a field

What are sustainable materials?

Compared to green materials, the definition of sustainable materials is much broader and more explicit, leaving little room for misconceptions. 

As per the EPA, sustainability “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” Not only is sustainability concerned with the environment, but it also factors in the impact on social and economic conditions many years into the future. 

Sustainable materials are produced from raw materials that are renewable and sourced in a manner that does not negatively impact the environment or decrease its supply permanently. This often entails replacing what has been used at a rate equal to or higher than its consumption so that future generations will have sufficient access to the resources.

There is an ecological angle to sustainable materials, as well. The use of these materials should not negatively affect the long term wellbeing of plants and animals (including humans), maintaining the delicate ecological balance of life. 

In other words, the habitats of plant and animal life must be protected from permanent destruction during the extraction of natural materials if they are to be deemed sustainable. 

In addition, sustainable materials have low embodied energy, which means the total energy used in the supply chain to make the material available for use must be minimal.

In practice, when green or sustainable materials are used in construction, the construction is referred to as a “green building”. A green building has the following characteristics [2]:

  • It does not negatively impact its environment.
  • It does not negatively affect the health of the occupants and is constructed from materials with low volatile organic compounds (VOC) content and no toxicity.
  • It is energy-efficient and consumes renewable energy such as solar or wind energy.
  • It is designed to implement natural ventilation.
  • The materials used in the construction should be appropriate and economical.

Sustainability Pillars: Environment, Economy, Society

Sustainable materials vs green materials

The differences between sustainable materials and green materials are not confined to what the materials are made of. They are more about the processes and policies that produce them. 

For example, suppose company A and company B produce the same product; one product might be considered green while the other sustainable due to the differences in:

  • The production processes
  • The raw materials
  • The transportation of the product from where it is produced to where it is consumed 
  • The intention behind the production, etc.

Another example can be given in the form of two buildings. Buildings A and B may be built with the same materials, but one is deemed sustainable while the other is not. This happens if the design of Building A has zero net-energy consumption while Building B consumes a high amount of energy. 

For this reason, to differentiate between green materials and sustainable materials, it is essential to understand what sets “green” and “sustainable” apart.

Table 1. The difference between Green and Sustainable [3].

Green

Sustainable

Hinged on only one pillar: environment

Hinged on three pillars: environment, economy and social equity

Concerned with individual parts and their constitution alone, including their recyclability, toxicity, etc.

Considers the relationship between individual parts and the entire system as a whole, including upcycling, recycling, production processes, the constitution of the product, etc.

Does not inherently curb the rate of production as long as the materials used are “green”

Questions human need for new products

Has an approach of small incremental reform to individual human habits to limit human impact on the environment

Has an approach of a complete overhaul of the status quo to design and implement a self-sustainable system

Positive change is effected by addressing individual products and manufacturing practices on a relatively small scale.

Demands positive change on a larger scale, usually by policy changes from the government at a city level, at least, for it to be effective

 

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Sources

[1] Findik, Fehim, and Kemal Turan. "Green Materials and Applications." Periodicals of Engineering and Natural Sciences 3 (2015): 17-23.

[2] Sheth, K. N. "Sustainable building materials used in green buildings." 9th International Conference on Engineering and Business Education (ICEBE) & 6th International Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE). 2016.

[3] Yanarella, Ernest J., Richard S. Levine, and Robert W. Lancaster. "Research and solutions:" green" vs. sustainability: from semantics to enlightenment." Sustainability: The Journal of Record 2.5 (2009): 296-302.

The difference between green materials and sustainable materials:

Not all green materials are sustainable, but sustainable materials are green. "Green materials" can be considered a subset of "Sustainable materials".

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