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Jargon busting: sustainability terms and phrases

The environment, sustainability, carbon and the climate are becoming increasingly important in business – and rightly so. Particularly right this minute, as world leaders make decisions that determine our collective futures at COP26 in Glasgow. But if taking steps towards sustainability is a relatively new thing for you then the broad scope of the topic and the jargon and acronyms involved risk being bewildering at best, or a barrier at worst.


With that in mind, we’ve compiled a glossary of common sustainability terms and phrases. It is not exhaustive, but covers those that you might come up against most frequently across a range of sectors. We’re presenting this Jargon busting glossary in alphabetical order, so there are some instances where terms that are closely related are alphabetically distant. Hopefully though this layout will allow you to easily skip to a specific term. However you use it, we hope that it helps to smooth your path to having a more positive impact.

Anthropogenic climate change

Changes to the Earth’s climate caused by human actions (burning fossil fuels, deforestation, etc), as opposed to climate changes that are part of or caused by natural climate cycles.

Atmospheric radiative forcing

A measure, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), of the influence a given climatic factor has on the amount of downward-directed radiant energy impinging upon Earth’s surface. If you offset the CO2 of a flight you may get the option to include “radiative forcing” which is an increase in the flight’s impact due to the fact that emissions are being delivered directly to the atmosphere.

B Corporation

Certified B Corporations are for-profit companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, governance, transparency and legal accountability. To become certified, a rigorous audit called the Business Impact Assessment is conducted and certified by the B Lab organisation, a non-profit certification body.

Biodiversity

Refers to the entire variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems. Biological diversity is defined by The Natural History Museum as “the volume of life on Earth, as well as how different species interact with each other and the physical world around them.”

Blue Carbon

Blue carbon is the carbon captured and stored in marine and coastal ecosystems. Coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes and coastal wetlands, sea grass meadows and mangrove forests are of particular importance, drawing down and storing away significantly more carbon compared to terrestrial ecosystems.

Carbon capture and storage

The process of capturing, at source, carbon dioxide generated in the production of energy by burning fossil fuels, or from CO2 intensive products such as cement or steel. Carbon is “captured” from emissions, transported away from the source, and stored deep underground. There are different methods of capturing carbon, and many emerging technologies.

Carbon credit

One carbon credit is equal to a set weight of carbon dioxide (usually one ton), or in some markets, carbon dioxide equivalent gases. It is basically a certificate of carbon offsetting that permits the holder to emit the same quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because it has been removed elsewhere by a certified project.

Carbon footprint

The amount of carbon dioxide or CO2e released into the atmosphere due to the actions of an individual, activity, business or organisation over a given time period. The concept of a personal carbon footprint was propagated by a 2005 BP marketing campaign conceived by Ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. The campaign was intended to divert attention and responsibility away from the fossil fuel industry onto individual consumers.

Carbon neutral

A state of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, achieved by an entity by eliminating emissions and/or accounting for emissions of carbon dioxide by removing them through carbon offsetting.

Carbon sequestration

The process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide through various naturally occurring biological, chemical, and physical processes, as well as through novel artificial processes.

Carbon sink

A carbon sink is anything that absorbs and stores more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases – for example, plants, soil and the ocean.

Chemical-free

Chemical-free is a term used in marketing (particularly related to health, beauty, food and household cleaning products) to imply that a product is safe, healthy or environmentally friendly because it only contains natural ingredients. From a chemist’s perspective, the term is a misnomer, as every single thing is created from chemical building blocks (a good example being water = H20 = two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen)

Circular economy

Most economies are linear and extractive – they take a resource, use it and then discard it. A circular economy is a closed loop system in which the inputs (raw materials) maintain their value so that a product can be designed, produced, distributed, used, and then re-used/repaired/recycled. The idea is to extract maximum value from resources and then find a life after use for them, reducing an activity’s impact upon the natural world.

Climate action

As defined by the UN’s thirteenth Sustainable Development Goal, climate action is: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. SDG 13 has targets, which are to be achieved by 2030. Climate action isn’t restricted to protest, but to any action with the purpose of combating, mitigating or reversing the drivers of climate change and its impacts.

Climate neutral

The same concept as carbon neutrality but extending to cover all other greenhouse gas emissions beyond carbon dioxide alone.

Climate positive /carbon negative

When an individual, business or organisation offsets more carbon or is responsible for regenerating more carbon sinks than the volume of carbon dioxide that they create.

Climate shadow

A new concept similar to the carbon footprint, but less simplistic. A climate shadow takes into account not only easily quantifiable impacts such as air travel, but also more difficult to quantify choices, influences and impacts such as how you vote, how many children you choose to have, where you work, how you invest your money, how much you talk about climate change, and whether your words amplify urgency, apathy, or denial.

CO2e

A simplified unit used to show the warming impact of various greenhouse gas emissions in a single measurement, calculated by adding together each gas’ global warming impact as an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide.

COP26

COP26 is the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty agreed in 1994). It is hosted by the UK and takes place in Glasgow on 31 October – 12 November 2021. The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

A business practice that aims to measure and control a business’ impact upon society, based upon the idea that a business has a responsibility to the society that exists around it. Often this is realised as an ethical code or ethical practices within their business, or as charitable activities.

Doughnut economics

Doughnut economics is an economic model that replaces the goal of endless GDP growth with the aim of meeting the needs of all people within the means of the living planet. The doughnut is the shape between two concentric rings – the core being social foundations (to ensure that nobody is left behind) and the outer ring being the ecological ceiling, or the planetary boundaries that we must operate within. The aim of doughnut economics is for all business activity to take place within the doughnut space.

Eco-friendly

A loose term used to describe something that is not (or less) harmful to the environment.

Ethical investment

An investment strategy that considers environmental and social impact and return, as well as profitable financial returns. The most obvious examples are banks, pensions, stocks, shares and investment funds that do not invest money in the fossil fuel industry or the arms/military-industrial complex

ESG

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria are a set of standards that investors use to assess a company based on their environmental and social impacts and their corporate governance. Thy use this information to determine if the company constitutes an ethical investment. This practice is also known as socially responsible investing, impact investing, or sustainable investing.

E-waste

Discarded electrical items (or electrical items that are yet to be recycled or have their component materials recovered), including computers, phones, white-goods and household electrical items. Planned obsolescence and products that have been designed so that they must be replaced rather than repaired are a huge cause of e-waste, alongside the huge demand for electrical items.

Fair Trade

A trading partnership that seeks greater equity in international trade, ensuring that producers in countries of origin (often small-scale farmers) are paid fairly and treated with dignity, respect, equality and fairness. The fair trade label is the mark of a global organization that is co-owned by more than 1.8 million farmers and workers, and its appearance on products helps consumers to make better purchasing decisions.

Green

Another loose/catch-all term, similar to eco-friendly, that implies environmental credentials through the association of the colour green.

Greenhouse gases

Gases that absorb and trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet and causing changes to the planet’s climate. The three primary greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Fluorinated gases (synthetic) and water vapour are also greenhouse gases.

Greenwashing

When a company misleads consumers about the environmental impacts of their products or services for marketing purposes. This can range from misleading consumers through vague or unsubstantiated claims, the use of brand names, identities and colour schemes that imply “green” credentials, through to the subversion or selective sharing of scientific reports.

ISO14001

A certification system (ISO stands for the International Organisation for Standardisation) for environmental management and auditing. It requires the measurement and evaluation of environmental performance against set objectives and targets with the aim being to reduce an organisation’s negative impact upon the environment.

Microfinance

Microfinance, also called micro-credit, provides financial services (such as business loans) to individuals, small businesses and co-operatives, often in developing nations, who are unable to access traditional banking. Often loans are crowd-funded by an organisation’s members.

Naked packaging

Selling a product with no packaging at all.

Natural

In simple terms, the opposite of synthetic or “man-made”, usually used to describe a product that is made using natural materials.

Natural capital

Assigns value to the world’s natural resources (soils, water, woodlands, all living organisms, etc…) so that it can be valued for its true worth and considered in planning and policy. Some natural capital assets provide free goods and services (often called ecosystem services) such as woodlands that sequester carbon and mitigate flood risks.

Naturalistic fallacy (the)

An informal logical fallacy that argues that if something is ‘natural’ it must therefore be good or beneficial. This is not always the case.

Net Zero

Net zero emissions will be reached when the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by an entity (be that an individual, a business, an organisation or a country) is equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere. There are two ways to do this, which run concurrently: reducing existing emissions and actively removing greenhouse gases. If we were able to eradicate all emissions completely, gross zero emissions would be achieved. But that is an unrealistic target for most, so net zero is used in recognition that some emissions are inevitable but must be accounted for and offset.

Ocean acidification

As the ocean absorbs more atmospheric carbon dioxide (because concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing) the pH level decreases and seawater becomes more acidic. Ocean acidification reduces the availability of carbonate ions in ocean water, which are the building blocks for many marine organisms’ shells and skeletons.

Offsetting

Offsetting, or carbon offsetting, is the process of compensating for or balancing out any carbon dioxide emissions that cannot be removed by an individual or organization’s activities by removing the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The most well known methods of offsetting carbon dioxide emissions are renewable energy and reforestation projects

Organic

Defined as “relating to or derived from living matter” or, in the case of food and farming, produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Recycling/recycled

Breaking down an item into individual constituent raw materials and processing them so that they can be used as raw materials for new products.

Regenerative

Activities that go beyond sustainability to pro-actively restore or regenerate the resources that they use, either directly or indirectly. Regenerative design uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature, recognizing that societies and economies exist within the natural world rather than treating the natural world as a resource.

Renewable or green energy

Electricity generated from natural and renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydro. Can also include renewable biomethane gas and carbon neutral (offset) gas.

Reused

Using an item again, either for the same purpose or for a different purpose in its original, unaltered form. Reuse is the action or practice of using an item, whether for its original purpose or to fulfill a different function. It should be distinguished from recycling, which is the breaking down of used items to make raw materials for the manufacture of new products.

Science based targets

Science-based targets provide a clearly defined pathway for companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, helping prevent the worst impacts of climate change. An emissions reduction target is defined as ‘science-based’ if it is developed in line with the scale of reductions required to keep global warming below 2C from pre-industrial levels.

Scope 1 emissions

Direct emissions from owned or controlled sources within the business, such as any vehicles owned by the company, business travel, or central heating.

Scope 2 emissions

This is the footprint of a business or household’s electricity and gas bills – emissions created indirectly or off-site from the generation of purchased energy

Scope 3 emissions

Any other indirect emissions generated in a supply chain or post-delivery of projects, products or services. They include employee commuting and anything purchased by the business.

Single-use

An item that is designed to only be used once before being discarded, or that is usually only used once before being discarded because of consumer habits. An example of a single-use product us a cotton bud that would be considered dirty and unhygienic after use, and so is discarded. Other examples, such as plastic drink bottles, can be reused several times however are usually treated as single use and little attempt is made by their manufacturers to change this.

Sustainable

If a product or activity is sustainable then it means that it can be maintained over time because the resources that it uses are being replaced at the same rate that they are being used, rather than being depleted.

Sustainable business

A business that has no net impact upon the natural world because its activities and products have been designed to be have minimal impact (through design or reductions), use resources from sustainable sources, and any remaining impact is accounted for and offset.

Sustainable design

A design that ensures that it has no impact upon the environment because the resources and/or materials used to realise the design are carefully chosen because they are being replaced, regenerated or replanted at the same rate that they are being extracted.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 nations at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Tree washing

A term coined by Leap’s founder Matt Hocking to describe the growing trend for businesses to pledge to plant a tree for each sale made, when the planting of a single tree does not offset the impact of that sale.

Triple bottom line

An accounting framework that measures a business’ success based on it’s impact upon people, planet, AND profit, rather than purely profit.

UN SDGs

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations in 2015 are a blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all, no matter the business sector or size.

Upcycling

Taking used materials, waste materials or offcuts and using them to create items of higher value than the original item. Often also referred to as creative reuse. Examples include furniture or wall paneling made from old wooden pallets.

Wish planting

Another term conceived by Matt, describing the growing problem of businesses or individuals pledging to plant XX number of trees based on a tree’s average carbon sequestration rates and believing that their carbon debt is cleared. This belief doesn’t take account of the fact that average carbon sequestration is over a tree’s entire lifespan, not immediate and total, and that there is a lag time before optimum sequestration is achieved.

Zero carbon

Unlike net zero, that acts to reduce carbon emissions and then cancel out what remains through offsetting, zero carbon means that no carbon is emitted at all, so there is nothing to offset. In the energy sector, this would be a state where the national grid is supplying 100% of its electricity from renewable sources that emit no carbon dioxide (wind, solar, hydro or nuclear).

Zero waste

A set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. It seeks to ensure that waste is minimised from the design stage onwards, and products can be repaired, reused, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.

If there’s anything else that we can do to help your business take steps towards becoming more sustainable, if you think that you could put our design for change skills to good use, or if you’d like to learn more about becoming a B Corp, please get in touch through the channels below