Sustainable Living

A Breakdown of Sustainability-Oriented Buzzwords, To Help You Understand What You’re Actually Buying and Supporting

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images/aldomurillo
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Along with feminism, Black Lives Matter, and just about any and every other politicized social and human-rights issue, environmentalism has become a marketing tool for many companies. As people have grown to care more about sustainability and protecting the environment—and research like this, this, and this indicate that to be the case—eco-related references and claims that use hollow sustainability buzzwords have been popping up on just about everything bought and sold in America, whether that's food, home products, clothes, or anything else.

As a result, it's become difficult for many well-intentioned consumers to distinguish between companies and products that are actually doing the work and those that are merely slapping a nice-sounding label on their product as a means to benefit from the appearance of doing the work. That challenge is compounded by a lack of knowledge around what all those nice-sounding labels of apparent eco-friendliness actually mean.

To clear the (cloudy, polluted) air and improve literacy about eco-consciousness, find a glossary of sustainability buzzwords below that you can reference. By understanding what the terms mean, you'll be more empowered to understand the real impact of your actions, purchases, corporate affiliations, and beyond.

Below, check out 21 sustainability buzzwords, defined.

1. Biodegradable

Biodegradable materials can be broken down and returned to the Earth over time, without any processing. Food waste and paper are two examples.

2. Bioplastics

Bioplastics are plastic materials made from biomass (plant or animal materials that are used as a renewable energy source, like wood or waste from yards) rather than petroleum, which is what makes traditional plastic. There are two types of bioplastics: polylactic acid (PLA), typically made from the sugars in cornstarch, sugarcane, or cassava, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), made from microorganisms that transform organic materials into plastic. Bioplastics are often, but not always, biodegradable. And even when they are biodegradable, they may not break down if they end up, as much waste does, in the ocean. A PLA straw, for example, will not degrade in that environment.

3. Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the measure of carbon emissions produced by an individual, product, company, activity, and more. You have a carbon footprint, your home has a carbon footprint, your commute has a carbon footprint, each food item you consume has a carbon footprint, and so on. The World Health Organization (WHO) has posited that reducing your individual carbon footprint is good not just for the health of the planet but for your own health, too. The organization's suggestions for doing so include traveling by train, cycling or walking instead of driving, and reducing your intake of animal products, among others.

4. Carbon neutral

If something is carbon neutral, it means its carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide absorption equal each other out, leading to net neutral emissions. Products, companies, and even individuals can be carbon neutral (or at least, aspire to be). Often, becoming so involves the purchase of carbon offsets.

5. Carbon offsets

Carbon offsets are purchasable reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, often utilized to help attain carbon neutrality goals. A company might, for example, pay to plant trees in order to help compensate for its carbon footprint, or it might, as some airlines do, offer ways for consumers to pay to offset the emissions of their purchases (in this case, flights). This tactic is not a fix for climate change, but it can help as organizations and governments work to build less environmentally harmful practices.

6. Climate change

Climate change refers to a long-term shift in the weather patterns regionally and globally. Typically, it's used to refer to the human-made rise in global temperatures that's occurred between the middle of the 20th century and the present day.

7. Climate emergency

The climate emergency is a situation in which urgent action is required to avoid catastrophic and irreversible damage to the environment that threatens all life on Earth, including that of humans. Many governments worldwide have declared the present moment to be a climate emergency, and the term was Oxford Dictionary's word of the year in 2019.

8. Compostable

Compostable materials can be broken down over time (into, say, soil), but they require specific composting conditions in order to do so. These conditions include green and brown plant materials, such as grass and leaves, moisture, and oxygen. The process essentially returns food scraps back to the Earth, where they can enrich the soil. Here's more on how you can incorporate the practice into your own life.

9. Eco-friendly/environmentally friendly

These are vague terms meant to imply that something is not harmful to the environment.

10. Energy efficient

If something is energy efficient, it uses less energy to provide the power it needs relative to similar products or services. An energy-efficient lightbulb, for example, would require less power than a regular lightbulb to produce its light. Most newer products are more energy efficient than their older counterparts, so replacing older items with ones that use newer technology can improve the overall energy efficiency of your home. Individuals can also become more energy efficient by unplugging devices and appliances when not in use, switching off extraneous lights, etc.

11. Green

If something is described as being "green," it typically means it is environmentally friendly; however, this term is vague and can be essentially meaningless.

12. Greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect describes what happens when gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, etc.) in the Earth's atmosphere trap the sun's heat, making the planet's surface warmer.

13. Greenwashing

Greenwashing essentially refers to marketing strategies designed to make a company and/or its products appear eco-friendly or sustainable despite such claims being exaggerated or even fraudulent.

14. Organic

Something that's organic—usually produce—is grown without the use of human-made materials, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, although there are some synthetic materials still allowed under this label. It also means that the item is not genetically modified (non-GMO).

15. Pollution

Pollution refers to the introduction of harmful materials—natural or unnatural—into the environment. For example, the burning of fossil fuels is polluting, but so, too, are natural forest fires.

16. Recyclable

If something is recyclable, rather than become waste, it can be repurposed. Recyclable materials include paper, cardboard, glass bottles, and some plastic. Not all items that are technically recyclable are recyclable in every area, and much of what is thrown into recycling bins (especially plastic items) ends up in landfills. As a result, the idea of recyclability is a bit overblown, and many environmental activists advocate working toward creating less waste instead.

17. Renewable energy

Renewable energy comes from natural resources that are constantly replenishing, like the sun or wind. That is what separates them from fossil fuel-based energy (oil, natural gas, and coal), as there are finite amounts of fossil fuels on Earth.

18. Reusable

If something is reusable, it can be used more than once and, ideally, multiple times over years (or decades!) without being transformed into a new product. Examples include tote bags, glass water bottles, bamboo straws, and more.

19. Sustainable

"Sustainable" is among the sustainability buzzwords that can been used to vaguely signify eco-consciousness; however, sustainability is technically the idea that a process or practice (or product's manufacturing) can meet present needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to also meet their needs. Unsustainable practices can decimate forests, for example, leaving future generations with a grossly disrupted ecosystem and warmer planet. Unsustainable water use now can lead to water shortages in the future. A strong focus of environmentalism efforts now is making the practices of individuals, cities, states, countries, and corporations more sustainable to ensure the long-term survival of ours and other species.

20. Upcycling

Upcycling is the use of waste materials to make something different from the would-be wasted materials. An example of this would be the use of plastic bottles in shoes and clothing, which is currently being undertaken by companies like Everlane, Allbirds, Patagonia, Buffy, and others. This prevents waste while also reducing the need for virgin materials to make new products.

21. Zero waste

Zero waste is a lifestyle or set of principles that focuses on the elimination of all waste so that nothing used ends up in a landfill, incinerator, or the ocean. Someone who lives a zero=waste lifestyle minimizes their consumption, reuses as much as possible and recycles, upcycles, or composts the rest. Well+Good Changemaker Lauren Singer is at the forefront of the modern zero waste movement.

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