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The A – Z of sustainability terminology

Sustainability is a vast subject, with different areas depending on the industry or problem, and because of this, it is unlikely that there will be one agreed-upon set of sustainability terminology. However, there is no shortage of words and concepts being used both in the mainstream and the professional space.

As a sustainability professional, even I get confused and overwhelmed with terminology, so this post is as much for me as it is for you. It aims to cover as many of these terms as possible considering the four tenants of sustainability Inclusivity, Integrity, Stewardship and Transparency, to help solidify the context of the concepts covered across the sustainability landscape, and will be updated regularly.

A - C

The term “accessibility” is often used in the context of the physical built environment, referring to how easy it is for people with disabilities to move around and use the space. However, the concept of accessibility can be applied more broadly to anything that is accessible to all, such as information or services. For sustainability, this means designing and delivering programs, products, and services that are inclusive and meet the needs of everyone. This concept is called Universal Design.

Active transportation includes walking, cycling, skating, and wheelchair use – any human-powered travel.

Not only does this support human health & wellbeing, but it also forms part of a personal carbon reduction plan – as active transportation does not emit any GHGs.

Adapting to a changing climate means being proactive about the risks from those changes and taking steps now, regardless of whether or not we have actually experienced them yet. Adaptation is one of the key strategies governments can use to address sustainability issues such as sea-level rise, droughts, heatwaves, and other impacts from global warming. It also helps build resilience against extreme weather that can be especially hazardous for coastal communities and fragile infrastructure.

“Affordable housing” is a term used to describe housing that is accessible to those who earn an income below the median in their area. In the sustainability context, it is important to have affordable housing because it enables people to live close to their workplaces, reducing the amount of energy and resources needed for transportation. It also allows people to live in communities that have access to essential services and amenities that meet their basic human rights.

The term “agency” can have different meanings, but for sustainability, it usually refers to the ability of people or organisations to take action. Agency is about having the power to make decisions and then taking responsibility for them. It’s also about being able to act on our convictions and principles, which is essential for creating meaningful change.

 

 

The term Anthropocene refers to a new geological time period, one where the primary influence on the planet’s natural history is human activity as opposed to natural sources of change such as geologic processes or major meteorological events. It is considered by some scientists as an epoch that began about 1945, with the rise in global uranium-based nuclear energy production and testing; but it has also been argued that the human impact extends well beyond this date to over millennia via increased greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental changes.

Asset-based community development (or ABCD) is a community development strategy that focuses on the assets – or strengths – of a community rather than its deficiencies. It starts by identifying what a community has already going for it, such as its people, institutions, and natural resources, and then building from there.

Building strong, resilient communities is essential to the economic wellbeing of people, businesses, local authorities and even government spending.

Biodiversity is a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth, including the different plants, animals, and microorganisms that make up ecosystems. It includes both the genetic diversity of different species and the variety of ecosystems around the world.

Biomimicry is a design approach that looks to nature for inspiration in order to create more sustainable technologies, products, and processes. It can involve copying the shapes, structures, or behaviours of natural organisms or mimicking the way natural systems work.

The biosphere is the place on Earth where life exists. It is made up of all the regions on Earth where organisms can live, including land surfaces, surface water bodies, and the atmosphere above them.

Carbon has been getting a bad rap lately, as the word is often co-opted to represent Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which is a GHG.

A carbon atom is the basic building block of all life on Earth. It is part of structures called organic molecules which are found in most living things, from animals to plants to microbes. Carbon exists in different forms, including charcoal, gas and diamond.

The carbon cycle describes how carbon atoms make their way around various parts of the planet – through rocks and water, air and organisms.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) describes technologies that can prevent large quantities of CO2 emissions produced by stationary sources such as power stations or industrial facilities from entering the atmosphere, by capturing the gas and storing it in a geological formation underground.

A carbon footprint is a measure of the amount of greenhouse gases (including CO2) emitted as a result of an individual’s or organisation’s activities. It can be expressed in terms of the tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted (tCO2e) or in terms of the number of flights taken, energy consumed, or goods produced.

Read more

A carbon credit is a tradable certificate that represents the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) or the equivalent amount of another greenhouse gas.

They are (mis)used by companies and governments to compensate for their CO2e emissions.

The misuse is when organisations use them to compensate for their emissions, without actively reducing their GHG output. 

Further Reading

Circular Economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (take, make, use, waste) in which materials are recycled or reused to as great an extent as possible.” The circular economy model seeks to maintain materials at their highest utility and value, eliminate waste and pollution, and regenerate natural systems.

Delve Deeper

Climate change refers to a broad array of environmental degradation that is predicted to result from increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 and other pervasive Green House Gases (GHG), including global warming, alterations in precipitation, sea-level changes and more extreme weather events.

CSR is a term that refers to corporate social responsibility, which is the promise of a business to contribute to long-term economic growth by working with employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and other stakeholders to improve their quality of life. This can involve donations to not-for-profits and charity organisations that fall under the company’s corporate values.

Bigger organisations often have entire departments dedicated to their CSR. While it has a place in a corporate sustainability agenda, on its own, does not meet the requirements of sustainable development. 

A design philosophy “that suggests materials and products should be biodegradable and recyclable at the end of their useful life.”

 

D - F

Dematerialisation – in the context of sustainability – is the process of reducing the physical quantity of a product or service while maintaining or even increasing, its utility or value.

Design for Disassembly is a product design philosophy that “seeks to optimise the ease of recycling through all stages of a product’s life.”

Also known as Design for Recycling.

Crops that have been specifically bred or genetically modified to survive periods of drought.

While the genetic modification of crops is frowned upon by some circles (due to the commodification of the seeds by corporations such as Monsanto), they need to be considered as part of a broader strategy to feed communities in drought-prone countries, by making the crops more resilient to drought. Something that will become increasingly common with the impacts of global heating and changing climates. 

Economic sustainability refers to the ability of an economy.

An Ecosystem is ‘a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.’

Definition from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Ecosystem Services are the direct and indirect benefits that humans derive from ecosystems that contribute to our quality of life, wellbeing and ultimately, our survival. These natural services are often grossly undervalued, so there is little emphasis on caring for them. However, without them, it would cost governments billions each year.

The four types of ecosystem services are:

  • Provisioning – Obtaining ‘products’ such as food, water, medicine, wood, oil and other genetic goods that we rely on.
  • Regulating – Benefits of natural processes and functions such as flood and climate regulation, water purification, pollination, etc.
  • Cultural – The non-material that contribute to our mental and physical wellbeing, spirituality, recreational activities and natural beauty.
  • Supporting – These include natural functions such as the water, nutrient and carbon cycles, and photosynthesis which support the ecosystems and habitats we rely on. 

 

Further Reading

A product, building, or process that reduces the amount of energy required to provide a service.

The fair trade concept is an effort to establish sustainable and equitable trading relations among nations. The fair trade movement unites the payment of higher prices to exporters with improved social and environmental standards. The movement focuses on commodities such as handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, wine, sugar, fruit, flowers, and gold, or items that are typically traded from developing countries to developed countries, but it’s also employed in national markets (e.g.,Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Bangladesh).

You can expect to see Fairtrade certifications for beauty, food, jewellery and homeware products.



Fairtrade certification is an independent, non-profit organisation that sets standards for fair trading practices between companies and producers in over 70 countries around the world.

Learn more about Fairtrade Certification

Food Miles are “the distance food travels from the farm to our plates.” Buying local, seasonal food helps to reduce your food miles.

Online organic food delivery services such as Riverford* and Able & Cole consider the distance food has to travel and the modes of transport required to reduce their CO2e and food mile footprints. 

*Disclosure: This is an affiliate link – we both receive £15, and a tree is planted on organic farmland for each sign up through this link.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-governmental organisation that promotes the responsible management of forests. You will often see the FSC seal on certified card and paper.

G - I

Green chemistry is the practice of designing and carrying out chemical processes in a way that minimises or eliminates the use and generation of hazardous substances. It is also known as green engineering or sustainable chemistry.

A Green Building is “a building or structure that employs strategies to reduce energy consumption and water usage, conserve and recycle materials, and improve indoor environmental quality.”

GHG emissions (greenhouse gas emissions) are “gases released directly or indirectly from human activity that contribute to the Earth’s greenhouse effect.”  They trap heat in the atmosphere and cause the Earth’s average temperature to rise.

They include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone.

GHGs are measured in units of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This makes it easier to compare the emissions from different GHGs, as they all have different warming potentials. For example, methane is around 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

They can come from both natural and human sources. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas releases GHGs into the atmosphere, as does farming, forestry and other land use.

Reducing GHGs – not just carbon dioxide – is essential to mitigating climate change and its impacts. There are a number of ways to do this, including switching to renewable energy, planting trees and improving agricultural practices.

Greenwashing is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is used to promote the perception that an organisation’s products, services, policies or practices are environmentally friendly.

In 2021, the UK Government – under the Competition & Markets Authority – introduced the Green Claims Code, in an effort to ensure consumers are getting what they believe they have paid for in terms of any “eco-claims.”

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