To talk about any topic and understand it you need to know the vocabulary. The sustainability movement is no different. It has lots of terms that might seem similar or even synonyms but in fact, could mean something entirely or at least slightly different. Are you ready to 100% understand eco-talk and use these terms correctly in your daily life? Let’s begin!

Table of Contents

How to use the sustainability dictionary

  1. The list is NOT sorted in alphabetic order. It has terms that complement each other bundled together.
  2. To find a term, you can use the browser’s search bar – on Windows press “ctrl”+”F” on Mac press “Command”+”space bar”. Write the term you are looking for in the search window and hit “enter”.

If you don’t find the word you are looking for, feel free to contact me! Either by adding a comment or shooting an e-mail: lookforsmile1 [at] . I will try to add it to the dictionary as soon as possible.

Disclaimer: I used internet resources to explain most of the terms. Where I could, I added the source.

Lifestyle-related sustainability terms

Sustainability definitions – what is Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability means that products are created by keeping in mind the longevity of resources and the well-being of the environment. Also, the end product is something that will have a long lifetime and/or will degrade in safe components or can be fully recycled. Usually, sustainability is associated with:

  1. Using renewable resources or a mix of non-renewable and renewable resources.
  2. Using materials for packaging that compost, can be 100% recycled (for example, glass), or reused several times.
  3. The word “sustainability” is created of 2 parts that already tell us a lot about it. Sustain – keep something going without interruption, ability – a skill to do something. So it is an ability to create conditions for long-term balanced development.

This term can be used to talk about the environment and about everyday life occasions.

Main sources: Cambridge Dictionary, Sustainable Review, and UCLA Sustainability

What is Zero-waste?

Zero-waste describes actions and lifestyle choices that aim to benefit the environment. Zero wasters try to NOT impact the environment in a negative way. The most common way how this ideology is expressed is by producing no trash (aka no waste) that would end up in the landfill. Usually, it means:

  1. Using reusable materials like glass, fabric bags, etc.
  2. Avoiding things that are not recyclable or that cannot be fully recycled into the same quality (for example, plastic).
  3. Buying things second-hand to save some pieces from going to the trash and to not support the overproduction of things.
  4. Using things that are organic and can be composted, burned, or 100% recycled into new things (for example, metals, glass, wood).
  5. Being aware of the carbon footprint and taking action to reduce it. For example:
    • Traveling smarter (offsetting carbon footprint, planning longer trips, etc).
    • Not traveling at all with vehicles that leave a negative impact on the environment (for example, planes, gas-powered cars, etc).
    • Buying local foods that are in season. Buying local helps to reduce carbon emissions made by transporting the products. It can also have the added benefit of having products with fewer chemicals used on them (that are needed to keep the produce fresh on the road).
  6. Choosing companies that support sustainability actions.
  7. and other actions.

What is Low-waste?

Low-waste lifestyle practitioners take actions that benefit the environment but they don’t do it 100% of the time. It means that from time to time they will buy items that end up in the landfill or do other actions that are not beneficial for the environment.

Generally, they take the same actions a zero-waste (see above) person does, but sometimes they also:

  1. Buy things packaged in plastic and other not recyclable materials (but tries to choose paper over plastic or recyclable packaging when possible).
  2. Drive a gas car.
  3. Not always offset their carbon footprint.
  4. Buy a paper or plastic bag, when they have forgotten their fabric bag at home.
  5. Buy new clothes, and sometimes even in fast fashion stores.
  6. Take a paper takeaway cup if their reusable cup is not with them.
  7. and others.

Environment and nature related sustainability terms

What is the Environment?

An environment is the totality of external surroundings, conditions, and recourses. The environment includes inanimate and live nature. The environment is also defined as natural processes, conditions of nature, and the overall state of the Planet. In the sustainability movement, people want the environment to develop on its own and stay untouched by destructive human actions.

What does Environmentally mean?

Environmentally means that something is done in alignment with nature and there is no harm done to the environment and nature.

What does Eco- mean?

Eco- means ecology or the environment (when talking about nature). It is an abbreviation that is often used as a prefix. Eco- is usually used to describe something that has a positive or at least neutral impact on the environment. 

What does Eco-friendly mean?

Eco-friendly means that the products or actions are not harmful to the environment and they are safe (friendly) to the environment. It can be referred to products, actions, and people who follow these principles. For example, someone who is eco-friendly will choose products and companies that support the well-being of this Planet.

What is Nature friendly?

Nature-friendly essentially is a synonym for eco-friendly and environmentally friendly.

What is Eco-tourism? 

Eco-tourism is a way of responsible travel that doesn’t disrupt nature. It sustains the well-being of local people and leaves the visited areas untouched and well-preserved. Usually, eco-tourism destinations are places where people actively conserve the environment and educate about it. Part of eco-tourism can also be using sustainable transportation and sustainable living arrangements.

Main source:

What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity is a variety of plant, animal, fungi, and microorganism species that you can find in one area. Sometimes the term “biodiversity” is also used to describe all living species on Planet Earth. Biodiversity is important because it helps to sustain nature and the Planet as we know it. All the different species found in nature interact with each other and create an environment and conditions suitable for human life to inhabit Earth.

What are Natural resources?

Natural resources are any supply from the Earth that people use. For example, trees, oil, soil, sand, ores, water, etc.

Main source: DHEC’s Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling

What is Ecological restoration?

Ecological restoration is a process of restoring biological sites after they have been damaged or destroyed by human actions.

Main source: Society for Ecological Restoration

What is Conservation?

Conservation is the preservation of resources so they are still around for future generations. Resources include minerals, air, soil, animals, marine, culture, and others. There are different types of conservation, for example, environmental conservation, animal conservation, marine conservation, human conservation, etc. 

What is Organic?

Organic means that an object is made of ingredients from the living nature (for example, plants, animals). Organic is also used to describe food that is grown using natural resources that do no harm to the environment and humans.

Organic means that products are grown without man-made pesticides and fertilizers. it also applies to livestock farming. Organically grown livestock will be fed natural food, for example, hay and vegetables. It will be without manmade food additives.

Main source: BBC Good Food

What is Net-zero water?

Net zero water is a system that covers all water needs for a building or campus locally. It means that the area collects rainwater, refilters, and reuses wastewater, and has its own water reserve. The freshwater added to this system externally is minimal.

Main sources: Federal Energy Management Program: The Ideal Net Zero Water Building and Net Zero Water Building Strategies

What is Net zero?

Net zero means that anything that is produced or used doesn’t do any harm to the environment and leaves everything the same as it was found. It is a term used to describe sustainable practices.

Main source: National Geographic

Climate related

What is Climate-positive?

Climate-positive means that a company or a person offsets or removes more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce. It means the same as carbon negative.

What is Climate neutral?

Climate-neutral means that a company or a person is removing the same amount of greenhouse gasses as they are producing. The removal can happen through planting trees, investing in renewable energy, or improving energy efficiency. It is similar to carbon neutral, but climate neutral applies to all greenhouse gases, not just carbon.

Main source: United Nations Climate Change

What is Climate change?

Climate change is a shift in weather and temperature patterns. Climate change is natural if it happens over a long time span, for example, thousands of years. Nowadays climate change is experienced in much shorter periods of time leading to think that human actions are the main driver for it.

Main sources: Australian Academy of Science, United Nations, and NASA Global Climate Change

What is Global warming?

Global warming is a term that describes that the average temperature on Earth is rising. In the last 100+ years, it has risen by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and is still slowly rising. Global warming is caused by the greenhouse effect and is part of climate change.

It is a concern because this change affects Earth’s processes. For example, there can be more frequent volcano eruptions, water tides, earthquakes, and melting of permafrost. The risen temperature can endanger lots of plant and animal species because they are often very sensitive to environmental changes.

All the changes in nature are slowly changing living conditions on Earth, which respectively impacts human life.

Main source: NASA Global Climate Change

What is the Greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect is a process in which the sun’s rays that are reaching the Earth are partially trapped in the atmosphere. The seven greenhouse gases (which are part of Earth’s natural atmosphere) create a “layer” that reflects some of the sun’s radiation back to Earth creating livable conditions on Earth.

Nowadays, the greenhouse effect has become an environmental problem, because human actions (burning fossil fuels, deforestation, etc) have disrupted the natural balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by adding more of them than there should be.

That leads to more sun rays bouncing back to Earth, which makes the Earth heat up more than it naturally should. It creates a cycle that feeds itself – the warmer it is on Earth, the more ice melts in arctic regions, the more ice melts – the less radiation Earth can reflect because ice is the main substance on Earth that reflects sunlight.

Main sources: National Geographic and NASA Global Climate Change

What are Greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases are gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change created by humans. The 7 greenhouse gases are Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide  (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PCFs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

What is an Ecological footprint?

An ecological footprint is a measurement of how much of Earth’s resources one person, country, or humanity uses to sustain their lifestyle. It is measured in global hectares (gha).

Main sources: Science Direct and EcoOnline

What is World overshoot day?

It is a predicted date when the Earth’s resources budget for the year is depleted. It is calculated taking into account the ratio between what humans use and how fast the resources can renew. Past that date, humans are utilizing resources from next year’s budget. It shows that today’s society is using more resources from the Earth than the Earth can renew, leading to the question of what will happen when we will deplete all resources to zero. 

Main source: Earth Overshoot Day

Carbon related

What is a Carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint is a measurement that is used to describe all emissions (that contain greenhouse gasses) that are produced by a person or entity. The carbon footprint is measured to determine the effect of human actions on climate change. The measurement unit is tons/per year.

Main sources: Science Direct and The Nature Conservancy

What is Carbon neutral?

Carbon neutral (also carbon neutrality) means that a company or a person is removing the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they have produced. The removal can happen through planting trees, investing in renewable energy, or improving energy efficiency.

Author’s note: some sources state that “carbon neutral” applies to not only removing carbon dioxide but to all greenhouse gases.

Main source: Greenly.Institute

What is Carbon net zero?

Carbon net zero is a goal of not producing any greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Realistically it means eliminating as many greenhouse gases as possible and offsetting the ones that cannot be eliminated.

Main sources: Greenly.Institute, University of Oxford Net Zero, and European Parliament

What is a Carbon offset?

Carbon offset (also carbon offsetting) is an activity of removing and reducing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by investing in carbon storing (for example, reforestation, storing in manufactured devices), renewable energy, or increased energy efficiency. 

What is a Carbon credit?

A carbon credit (also known as carbon offset credit) is the amount of greenhouse gases a company is allowed to produce in one year. It is controlled by the government with the goal to if not reduce the greenhouse gases then at least keep them at the same level. If a company produces less carbon emission than its credit, it can sell the excess carbon credit to another company. A carbon credit can also be maintained by using carbon offsetting strategies.

Main sources: Carbon Credits, Climate Portal, and Carbon Offset Guide

What is Carbon sequestration?

Carbon sequestration is pulling carbon from the atmosphere and safely storing it for a long period of time. Carbon can be stored in geological formations (for example, porous rocks), forests (and other vegetation), oceans, soils, and man-made structures.

Main source: Science Direct

What is a Carbon sink?

A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere. Natural carbon sinks are forests and oceans. There can also be man-made carbon sinks.

Main source: National Geographic

What is Carbon negative?

Carbon negative means that a company or a person offsets or removes more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce. It means the same as climate-positive.

Energy related

What is Alternative energy?

Alternative energy is energy that doesn’t come from fossil fuels, for example, wind, water and solar power, and nuclear energy, and others.

What is Renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy that is obtained from resources that never run out aka they replenish faster than they are consumed. Renewable energy includes wind, water, and solar power. Renewable energy is alternative energy, but not all alternative energy resources are renewable.

What is Green energy?

In theory, green energy is an energy source that doesn’t pollute the environment (including the air) in any way.

At the moment, there is no such thing as 100% green energy because all energy-acquiring methods impact the environment in some way. However, renewable energy leaves a much smaller impact on the environment than non-renewable.

So, in reality, the term “Green energy” is used to describe energy resources that have a very small negative impact on the environment or they add some benefit to the environment in a different way.

Green energy is renewable energy, but not all renewable energy resources are green.

Main source: United States Environmental Protection Agency

What is Clean energy?

Clean energy is an energy source that doesn’t create any greenhouse emissions. Often “clean energy” and “green energy” are used interchangeably. That is not 100% correct, since clean energy applies just to resources that don’t pollute the air, while green energy applies to no pollution at all, air or otherwise.

Main source: Impactful Ninja

What is Sustainable energy?

Sustainable energy is energy that is acquired and used in a way that is maintainable forever (it replenishes faster than is used) and does not impact future generations in a negative way.

Disclaimer: at the moment there are a lot of slightly different definitions for “sustainable energy”. We have used here the essence of the most common definitions. 

Sources: British Assessment Bureau, Impactful Ninja, and Routledge

Breaking down materials

What is Biodegradable?

Biodegradable means that an item or object breaks down into basic elements over a certain period of time. It can refer to organic materials (for example, food scraps, wood, plants, etc) or inorganic materials (for example, plastic).

Biodegradable items can be beneficial or harmful to the environment depending on what raw materials they are made of. Biodegradation is similar but not entirely the same as compost. All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.

Author’s comment: Some dictionaries define “biodegradable” as a way to decay in a manner that is not harmful to the environment. However, most resources agree that “biodegradable” means that material just decomposes over time (there is also not a specified time period) and does not necessarily mean that the ingredients will be good for the environment.

Main source: Ocean Watch

What is Composting?

Composting is when organic materials break down into their basic elements (for example, gases, sugars, and water). The result of composting will always be beneficial to the environment – no toxic or harmful elements are released into nature. Composting is often done in controlled and aerobic (requires air) conditions. The result of composting organic materials is fertilized and nutrient-rich soil.

Composting and biodegradation are not synonyms. Composting is the biodegradation of organic materials, however, biodegradation can relate to non-organic materials as well.

Main source: Ocean Watch

What is Recycling?

Recycling is converting used materials into new products. The collection of waste materials that can be used for making new objects is also called recycling.

Plastic related

What is Microplastic?

Microplastic is really small pieces of plastic (less than 5mm (0.2 inches) in length). Microplastic is dangerous because it is easy to accidentally consume it either by animals or even humans. Since plastic is not an organic compound it doesn’t break down in living organisms. The risks of small plastic pieces accumulating in human or animal bodies include serious health risks.

Microplastic is created in plastic item production, as well as when these everyday plastic items start to break down. Microplastic pieces are often found in large bodies of water such as oceans, rivers, seas, etc. Microplastic can sometimes be found in drinking water because of the overall microplastic pollution.

Main sources: National Geographic, National Ocean Service, and Client Earth

What is Biodegradable plastic?

Biodegradable plastic is a plastic material that decomposes under biological conditions, for example, microbial. Some biodegradable plastic is compostable, some are not. Some biodegradable plastics are made from plants and some are from fossil fuels. Biodegradable plastic does not mean that it will degrade into ingredients that are beneficial for the environment.

Main source: “Let’s Do It” Foundation

What is Bio-based plastic?

Bio-based plastic is one that is made from plant materials, not fossil fuels. Bio-based plastic can be biodegradable or act 100% as conventional plastics. It depends on the materials and the production method.

What is Bio-plastic?

Bio-plastic is a term that is used to refer to biodegradable plastic OR bio-based plastic. Since they are not the same, it is best to avoid this term to minimize confusion and misunderstanding.

What is Oxo-degradable plastic?

Oxo-degradable (sometimes also oxo-biodegradable) plastic is plastic that degrades in the presence of oxygen and is made from fossil fuels. This is one of the most dangerous (from a sustainability standpoint) kinds of plastic since it can degrade easily in nature and create micro-plastic and release other chemicals that can be harmful to the environment.

Main source: “Let’s Do It” Foundation

What is Compostable plastic?

Compostable plastic is a material that can decompose into environmentally friendly ingredients usually under special circumstances, for example, in the presence of air. Some compostable plastics can be composted in the backyard compost, some need industrial compost facilities.

Business and economy related

What is a Circular economy?

A circular economy is a process where a product is kept in circulation as long as possible. In the perfect scenario, no parts of a product end up in the garbage (aka not creating any long-term waste). It is achieved by reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling. A circular economy is based on cradle-to-cradle principles.

Main source: European Parliament

What is Cradle-to-cradle?

Cradle-to-cradle is a theory (sometimes called a design philosophy) where it is possible to divide any product into its raw materials and use them to create new products. That way no materials are thrown out, and everything is always returning to the production cycle. The creators of the cradle-to-cradle theory are Michael Braungart and William McDonough.

Main source: Sustainability Guide

What is Conscious capitalism?

Conscious capitalism is a system where business is done considering not only the profit but also ethical, environmental, and social aspects. 

Main source: Grand Canyon Capitalism

What is Fairtrade?

Fairtrade is an action of ensuring good business practices between developing countries and the Western World. It is done by offering equal pay to the workers, providing good working conditions, and using environmentally friendly harvesting and product manufacturing methods. It is organized by the Fairtrade Foundation. 

Main source: Fairtrade Foundation

What is the Fairtrade debate?

The Fairtrade debate means that there have been concerns about whether Fairtrade companies and organizations are ethical.

Some of the allegations are:

  • that the Fairtrade money doesn’t reach the workers,
  • that companies use in their manufacturing just a small amount of Fairtrade products but still label them as fully Fairtrade. This action raises the price of the product for consumers but doesn’t reach the Fairtrade goal it was intended for.

Main sources: Wikipedia and Netivist

What is Ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is when fashion items are made from resources that are obtained in a fairway. It means that:

  • the environment was not harmed during the item production,
  • people who created the items have worked in good, healthy conditions and received adequate pay.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies use marketing materials that suggest that their products are sustainable when in reality they are not. Examples of such marketing are:

  • using cardboard brown and green colors in packaging,
  • having nature and animals on the packaging and in the advertising,
  • using words that don’t have any certification needed, for example, green, eco, natural, etc. 

What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

Paris Climate Agreement (also known as Paris Climate Accords or Paris Accords) is an international treaty between 195 countries on climate change. The biggest goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to work on the global average temperature to keep it stable and sustainable for human life.

Main source: United Nations Climate Change

What is ESG?

ESG means environmental, social, and governance. It is a framework that is used to assess whether a company is using sustainable and good business practices. It is often used by investors who want to invest in socially and environmentally conscious businesses.

Main source: TechTarget

What is CSR?

CSR stands for corporate social responsibility. It is a business strategy that aside from gaining profit also includes activities that support the goal of social and environmental responsibility. CSR is closely bound with the Triple Bottom Line concept.

Main source: United Nations Industrial Development Organization

What is Triple Bottom Line?

Triple Bottom Line or TBL is a concept that businesses should have not 1 bottom line (profit) but three – people, planet, and profit.

Main source: Investopedia

You are an expert now!

You have reached the end of the dictionary, which means that you are now a sustainability terms expert! ;) On a more serious note, thanks for reading! I hope you found what you were looking for and that you feel more competent to engage in and understand sustainability conversations. I feel like this will be an ongoing project since there will definitely be new terms to add but for now, let’s celebrate getting through this list!


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