A Comprehensive Sustainable Glossary of Terms

Sustainable Glossary

Active Transport

The term active transport refers to the art of going from one place to another under your own steam.

It encompasses activities such as walking, running, cycling, skating, scooting, skateboarding, etc.


Something is biodegradable if it will break down naturally in the environment given the right conditions and in the presence of bacteria, fungi or other kinds of microorganism.

It is important to note, however, that while the ideal situation is that this process leaves behind no toxic matter, the term “biodegradable” applies to products that leave toxic waste behind as much as it does to those that do not.


Biomimicry is a design discipline that seeks to find sustainable solutions for problems by examining the natural world and mimicking it.

This should, in theory, create products that are harmonious with life on earth as they will be very natural-like.

Blue Economy

The blue economy is the economy that is created from the world’s oceans, seas, and watercourses as well as coastal areas, that derives its wealth through sustainable economic activity.

Thus, not all forms of fishing, for example, are part of the blue economy but fishing a sustainable fish stock would be.

Business Model

The business model of a company is simply the way that it intends to create value for its customers and its shareholders and how that will translate into profitability.

The business model for a business is often captured in a business plan but there is no requirement for a company to have a formal business model or to disclose any model that it does have.

Carbon Footprint

carbon footprints

The carbon footprint of an individual, a business, or an activity is the amount of greenhouse gas (this is usually given in “carbon equivalent units”) that they produce over a set period of time.

This measurement allows the development of targets to reduce polluting activities in the future or to “offset them”. Here’s a worked example of the carbon footprint of cars. 

Carbon Neutral

The term “carbon neutral” refers to an individual, business or activity that has had its carbon emissions verified and then these emissions have been fully offset.

This then leads to an overall cost to the environment equivalent to no carbon release. This may also be known as net zero greenhouse gas emission.

Carbon Offset/Carbon Credit

A carbon credit is something which can be purchased to represent an activity which reduces carbon pollution.

Carbon offsetting is the process by which such credits are purchased and used via a carbon trading scheme.

This process is sometimes criticized as it often leads to a pathway by which rich people can buy the right to pollute and leave poorer people with no such facility.

Carbon Positive

A carbon positive individual, business or process is one in which there are more reductions/offsets involved than carbon produced.

Thus, there is a net positive effect for the environment.

Carbon Sequestration

This sounds quite technical but it is actually the act of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

So, you can carry out carbon sequestration by planting trees, for example. This will create carbon credits which can be used to offset carbon generating activities.

Circular Economy

The circular economy is one where every product is designed with the entire lifecycle in mind and which places sustainability to the forefront at every step.

This means that the production of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, transport, use, and then either reuse, recycling, or biodegradability of waste must all be sustainable. 

An example of this idea in action is circular fashion

Climate Action

A climate action is any set of activities which are meant to help combat climate change and the impact of greenhouse gas pollution.

This can be formal action such as that carried out by groups such as Extinction Rebellion or informal action carried out by individuals or communities on an ad hoc basis. 

Climate Change

climate change

Climate change is the current term for the changing global weather patterns and the overall average temperatures on the planet.

This comes from research which shows that the rising temperatures on the planet since the industrial revolution are well outside of the norm and very high.

This change may lead to drought, rising sea levels, destruction of glaciers, desertification, and in the long run, extinction of species and mass migration of human beings. 

You can learn more about climate change with these climate change documentaries. 

Climate Resilience

A climate resilient system pre-supposes that climate change is inevitable, as opposed to a sustainable approach which seeks to prevent such change, and seeks to mitigate the impact of such climate change on that system.

It may be that climate resilience is an essential part of dealing with the current issues facing the planet.

Closed Loop

A closed loop economy is the ultimate circular economy in which no new raw materials enter the economy and all existing items must be recycled to create the same product.

So, if Sandra breaks a glass water bottle, the shards would be collected and reused to make a glass water bottle for Sandra.

Collective Impact

Collective impact is the idea that if a large group of people or businesses across sectors band together they can achieve large scale change for sustainable benefits. 

Conscious Capitalism/Conscious Consumerism

A conscious consumer is one that is aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions and who makes conscious choices to reduce the harm they do to the planet.

Conscious capitalism is the system which exists to serve the conscious consumer.

It seeks to benefit the planet and people in its activities with profits a secondary concern.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

This is a function of a business that resides with managers and leaders and places emphasis on activities which alleviate concerns of a social and/or environmental nature.

These activities are often criticized as a very small effort compared to the issues that the businesses themselves cause.

Cradle To Cradle

This is another form of the circular economy and the idea is that each product that reaches the end of its useful life cycle is then remanufactured into a new product rather than being discarded.


Deforestation is the action of clearing forests for other purposes.

The reasons for deforestation differ from place to place, for example, in the Amazon rainforest much deforestation is due to a need to clear land for new crops or raising animals.

Whereas in Cambodia, for example, the wood itself is valuable and hardwood forests are being cleared in order to be financially exploited.

Donut Economics

This is a theory of economic activity which is bounded by the need to carry out ethical, social and environmental responsibility and sustainability. When this is diagrammed the resulting diagram looks like a donut, hence “donut economics”. Homer Simpson would be disappointed to learn this.

Electric Vehicle

An electric vehicle is any vehicle which operates on a battery as opposed to some form of combustion engine.

There is much debate as to whether the electric vehicle model is any real amount more sustainable than combustion engines.

However, for the moment, general consensus is in favor of electric vehicles and many places around the world will subsidize such vehicles to try and persuade consumers to make the switch to electric. 

Ecological Footprint

The ecological footprint of an individual, organization, or activity is simply the measure of how much “nature” (natural resources of all kinds – including land, plant life, animal-life, etc.) it consumes after subtracting the amount of “nature” that it creates.

This is a valuable measure as it allows the determination of the true cost of a lifestyle or activity and to plan mitigation for excess. 

Ecological Restoration

The purpose of ecological restoration, as the name suggests, is to restore ecologies which have been damaged by our activity or the activity of others.

It is worth noting that many consider this to be a pointless task as research suggests that once ecological damage is done, it cannot be fully repaired.

However, ecological restoration remains an important activity. 

Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

An emissions trading scheme (ETS) is a formal scheme for trading carbon credits and offsetting carbon use.

There are formal ETS schemes such as the one run by the government of New Zealand and informal schemes which are run by not-for-profit and for-profit organizations.

Critics of these schemes say they are enabling ecological damage for the rich while penalizing the poor.

Environmental, Social And Governance (ESG)

This is often a restatement of “Corporate Social Responsibility” and the two terms can be safely used interchangeably in most circumstances.

The idea is that ESG is incorporated in a business strategy so that the business acts in the interest of society and the environment but all too often this is a token effort when compared to the damage done by the larger business activity.

Ethical Or Sustainable Investment

An ethical or sustainable investment is an investment made into a business or individual which is expected to return a profit and the business/individual is fully committed to sustainability.

Ethical/Sustainable investors require a higher degree of corporate transparency than most other forms of investor.

We have a guide to ESG investing which can help you understand this more.


The term “e-waste” refers to discarded electronic equipment.

This includes phones, computers, TVs, white goods, etc. It is a form of waste which is highly problematic as it is not biodegradable and recycling is often economically unattractive.

Fair Trade

Fair trade is an ethical form of trade which sees businesses form partnerships with the people who produce their goods and services.

This, in turn, sees the people who do the hard work receiving fair market wages and a share of the overall benefits that the economic activity brings.

It is very popular in Africa, and in parts of South America and Asia.

Check out this great fair trade coffee and fair trade chocolate to get an idea of what products work well with fair trade.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is an entirely sustainable form of energy which is derived from natural heat from the Earth’s core. It can be derived as this heat leaves the Earth, such as in geysers or volcanic activity. It is normally used to create electricity.

Global Warming

Global warming is a term that has fallen out of favor. It has been replaced with climate change.

However, as “global warming” leads to strange climate patterns which include brief periods which are colder than the average – it is often used to confuse or obfuscate environmental issues.

Thus, climate change is the preferred term.

Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect is the act of trapping heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, similar to the way that a greenhouse traps heat within its glass.

This causes the heating of the Earth’s surface and drives climate change.

This is because “greenhouse gases” act as a reflector for radiated heat from the Earth’s surface and instead of escaping, as it once would, through the atmosphere – it returns to Earth.


Greenwashing is an unethical business tactic where corporate marketing portrays an activity as environmentally friendly when it is not.

Many eco-friendly terms such as “natural” are not well-regulated and marketers take advantage of a consumer’s urge to save the planet by misleading them with such terms.

Hybrid Vehicle

A hybrid vehicle is a vehicle which can operate both on a battery (as an electric vehicle) but also with a combustion engine.

This is often the most practical solution in places where long drives are an essential component of life.

It is not as eco-friendly as electric vehicles are but it is better than a pure combustion engine, experts say.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

This is the process by which a process is analyzed to determine the environmental benefits/drawbacks at each state of that process from cradle to grave.


A localvore is someone who will only eat locally produced produce.

They are not necessarily vegans though many people in the vegan movement are also localvores.



Microfinancing is an ethical way of lending to people in the developing world by offering affordable loans for amounts smaller than banks would typically lend.

When done properly it can help communities escape poverty.

However, more and more micro financing operations around the world are behaving like loan sharks rather than socially conscious organizations. 


Microplastics are a major form of pollution and they are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in length.

They are caused by general plastic pollution becoming eroded, for example, when these plastics are discarded into the ocean.

They can be found in the bodies of all living things now.

Modern Slavery

The term modern slavery refers to “slavery-like” practices such as debt bondage, forced marriage, human trafficking as well as actual slavery. Contrary to popular belief, slavery is still practiced in many countries around the world today.

Facebook was recently admonished by Apple for facilitating the slave trade with Facebook marketplace, in fact! 

Natural Capital

“Capital” is something of value. It could be money, a house, car, etc.

Natural capital is a stock of all the valuable things that exist in nature.

This includes air, water and land as well as geological resources and all the lifeforms on the planet.

If we ever run out of natural capital, everything on the planet will be dead.

Natural Resources

Natural resources are anything of value that occurs in nature.

So, for example, trees (which can be used for lumber) are a natural resource.

As is oil, which forms over a period of millions of years.

All natural resources can be exploited and used for economic gain and thus, there are sustainability concerns with respect to nearly all natural resources.


The term “organic” didn’t used to mean very much, a bit like the term “natural”, however, in recent years the USDA certifies things as organic or not and thus, the term “organic” carries some weight.

It tends to refer to production which uses traditional farming methods and innovative farming methods which avoid harmful chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers.


An object is deemed post-consumer when it has been used previously and then been recycled or reprocessed to form another product.

PPP/Triple Bottom Line

PPP is “People, Planet and Profit” and these are the three principles which form the triple bottom line.

The idea is to encourage businesses to broaden their scope from just a focus on making money to take into account the larger picture and to consider both the environment and the communities they serve when taking business action.


Preservation is the act of preventing damage or harm from occurring.

This is deemed the ultimate act of sustainability and preservation makes up a key component of a sustainable development strategy for any business, individual or nation.


Reclaimed materials are those which have been left to waste and which are then reprocessed to create new products.

The idea also applies to “reclaimed land” where previously unusable land is restored to the point where it can accommodate development or be returned to nature for “rewilding”.


The act of recycling is an important one for those pursuing a sustainable lifestyle.

The first step in sustainability is to reuse something but if it has come to the end of its useful life then recycling is the act of reprocessing the materials in the product so that they can be used to create something new.

Not all materials can be recycled, however, and some materials that can be recycled are not due to economic costs of the recycling when compared to producing new materials. 


As opposed to deforestation, reforestation is the act of trying to grow more trees to replace those lost by deforestation.

It is important to note that while this is a valuable activity, scientific research shows that forest ecosystems do not regenerate quickly and it is better not to lose forest than to replant it. 


As with reforestation, the act of remineralization is to try and recreate the mineral content within an environment which has been previously stripped of such content. This activity is still fairly unusual and comes with many challenges for successful implementation. 

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is any energy created from a source of “boundless” energy – this includes geothermal energy (energy from the Earth), hydropower (energy from the flow of water), solar energy (energy from the sun) and wind energy (energy from the air). 

There is some debate as to whether nuclear energy should be included in this category – however, as nuclear materials are not renewable (even if they are available in large supply) we feel they should be considered as “green energy” rather than renewable energy.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are all resources which cannot be exhausted due to the actions of human beings. So, oil, coal, etc. are not renewable resources.

Whereas wind, solar, etc. are renewable resources. It is always preferable, when possible, to use renewable resources when compared to non-renewable resources.

Sharing Economy

The “sharing economy” is the ultimate extension of the hippy commune.

It encourages the reuse and sharing of resources where possible rather than individual ownership. However, the commercialization of the “sharing economy” is often not ethical or sustainable, a good example of this would be Airbnb which damages existing hotel businesses and prices locals out of the rental market in the places it operates in.

Sharing is not always caring.


“Single-use” refers to any item that is used only once and then discarded.

Examples would include a plastic straw or plastic water bottle or a sachet of ketchup in a restaurant.

These items create the most waste and in a truly sustainable world, we would mainly eliminate all single use items from sale.

Social Enterprise

A social enterprise is a business that is either operated on a for-profit or not-for-profit basis which has the primary purpose of creating social good from its operations.

Any profits that are generated from their activities tend to be reinvested in the business to create greater social benefits rather than being paid out to shareholders.

Solar Energy

Solar energy is the energy produced by the nuclear reactions of the sun.

This radiation radiates across space and warms the surface of our planet.

It can be harnessed using solar panels which can be attached to a solar energy grid and the electricity can be shared easily.

It is most popular as a fuel in places with a lot of sun – such as Saudi Arabia or parts of Africa.


Sustainability is the measure of which a system can be maintained in a steady state.

The idea is that in a balanced world, humanity lives in harmony with the planet and the environment to create a space which does not degrade and where we do not harm our environment or vice-versa. 

Sustainability has become a huge issue over the last few years, however, many businesses exploit the idea of sustainability to hide actions which are hugely damaging to the planet.

It is important to carefully examine claims of sustainability rather than to accept them at face value.  We explore, in another article, what it means to be sustainable in more detail.

Supply Chain

The supply chain is the entire process of getting a product from the point of material creation to the point when the product is accepted by and used by the purchaser. 

So, for example, a cotton shirt would have a supply chain something like this:

  • Cotton is grown and harvested on a cotton farm
  • It is then moved to a cotton processing facility to be turned into fabric
  • The fabric is then moved to a manufacturing facility
  • Oil is drawn from the ground
  • The oil is shipped to a plastic company where it is turned into plastic
  • The plastic is sent to a button manufacturer
  • The buttons are sent to the same manufacturing facility as the fabric
  • A shirt is made
  • The shirt is shipped to a distributor
  • The shirt is shipped to a retailer
  • The shirt is purchased and then worn by someone

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a kind of problem solving activity where a problem is solved by considering the impacts of the solution on the wider system.

So, that the influences of one dynamic in a system are considered on all the other dynamics.

In theory, this should lead to greater levels of sustainability within a system. 

Value Proposition

The value proposition of a product, service or business is simply the value which a consumer places on those things.

If the value proposition is higher than the purchase price or investment – the business, product or service is likely to be commercially successful.

One constant struggle for sustainability is that the value proposition of many eco-friendly activities is not substantial enough to persuade consumers to change from their less eco-friendly activities.


Vegan is a lifestyle choice which rejects the use of animal products, the consumption of animal products or flesh and the exploitation of animals too.

It is often confused with a plant-based diet but “vegan” goes substantially beyond this.

Wind Energy

Wind energy is created by the action of wind passing through a turbine.

It is renewable but its sustainability is often questionable.

Wind farms can harm wildlife (birds and bats mostly) and the turbines use a ton of natural resources in their creation.


Wish-cycling is the process by which consumers leave items for recycling without knowing whether or not they can be recycled and assuming that they will be dealt with properly.


The zero-waste movement tries to avoid creating any kind of waste which will end up in a landfill. They often eliminate packaging and invest in reusable storage to assist with this.

Learn more about the zero-waste movement with these awesome zero-waste podcasts.