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What we talk about when we talk about sustainability

When we talk about sustainability, it can be all too easy to trip up on all the jargon. In partnership with, Curation, here's a handy glossary of terms to get you started!

Adopting a sustainable mindset is becoming ever more important for both businesses and consumers, so it’s no surprise that a lot of sustainability jargon is popping up online, in publications and in conversation more generally. But many of these terms can be a little difficult to understand – and they may even be misused by those who want to obscure what’s really going on in terms of their sustainability performance. So, we’ve created a handy glossary that debunks what they really mean, so you can drop them into conversation without any fear of messing up. 

This piece was powered by our friends at Curation.

Looking for one term in particular? Here’s what’s coming up:

  1. Sustainable
  2. Greenwashing
  3. Carbon footprint
  4. Circular economics
  5. Biodiversity
  6. Renewables
  7. Electrification
  8. Carbon capture
  9. Carbon offsetting
  10. Net zero

Sustainable

Let’s start with the big one. The classic definition from 1987, which still holds true today, is: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In broad terms, a business, product, service or activity is sustainable if its future negative impact on the planet and people is considered and minimised. 

Sustainability doesn’t have to just refer to the environment – there are many moving parts to consider. A business may, for example, be able to claim its products are sustainable because they use recycled components. If that operation, however, was exploiting workers in its supply chain, then it would be hard to label the company’s practices as “sustainable”. 

This can be problematic, since organisations can brand a product as being “sustainable” when in reality the label is only being applied using a narrow lens. Which brings us to the next term in our glossary… 

Greenwashing

This term is often used when an organisation’s sustainability credentials flatter to deceive. Greenwashing typically comes in two forms: a company labelling a product as “green” when reality doesn’t reflect this, or an organisation highlighting a “sustainable” part of its business to distract from other less-sustainable operations. A recent example of the latter is energy companies coming under fire for promoting greener fuels – which make up a small proportion of their overall activities – while also failing to be transparent around their own climate targets. 

Carbon footprint

Broadly speaking, this is the CO2 released into the atmosphere from embarking in an activity or creating a product. You may have seen a lot of chatter in the news recently about the carbon footprint of bitcoin amid the digital currency’s popularity. All the things you use – physical or digital – have a carbon footprint associated with them.

The carbon footprint of companies is often broken down into three types of emissions: 

Scope 1 emissions: Emissions directly attributable to an organisation’s operations. A factory burning coal to power a generator, for example, would be producing Scope 1 emissions for its owner. 

Scope 2 emissions: Refers to indirect emissions that can be attributed to a company. Let’s say an organisation purchases electricity that’s been generated by fossil fuels. While the organisation isn’t directly burning the fuels, it can still be viewed as accountable for the CO2 generated because it’s using the power for its operations. 

Scope 3 emissions: The emissions generated by a company’s products when they are used by customers. An energy company selling fuel to an airline, for example, would be accountable for Scope 3 emissions when that fuel is used. Oil firms have recently come under pressure to disclose the extent of their Scope 3 emissions when setting climate targets. 

Circular economics

This is recycling or reusing would-be waste products for new goods, thereby reducing the environmental footprint of manufacturing processes. Circular economic principles are increasingly being adopted by fast-fashion and drinks companies – both cohorts that have faced criticism over the amount of waste they generate. 

Examples include using plastic recovered from the ocean to produce apparel – an initiative popular with both athletic and luxury clothing brands – or producing “long-life” goods, such as construction components, using discarded materials. Closing the loop using techniques like this means fewer raw resources are needed to make the stuff we use in the first place.

Biodiversity

A term representing the variety of plant and animal life in the natural world, which can be measured at various levels. A healthy level of biodiversity has an obvious intrinsic value, which can be appreciated by watching any David Attenborough documentary. But biodiversity is also critical to sustain due to the vast amount of ecosystem services biodiversity-rich areas provide to human and wider habitats.

Companies can have significant negative impacts on biodiversity through their activities in the ocean and on land, which can result in species loss from practices like deforestation. While some firms are taking action to reduce their biodiversity impacts, there is still a lot to be done.

Renewables

What was once a niche term for a small set of energy technologies many were sceptical about, renewables – wind energy, solar energy, biomass, hydropower and other less-established technologies such as wave and tidal power – now make up a significant proportion of the electricity we all use. In the UK, amazingly, thanks in part to a large expansion of wind turbines off the coast, renewables now provide more electricity than fossil fuels, making up over 40% of power generated.

You can make sure you are getting renewable electricity by signing up to a green energy tariff. It’s worth looking at the detail though – different suppliers get renewables through different means.

Electrification

You’ll often see this term used when discussing transport and the transition away from noisy, gas-guzzling diesel and petrol cars to zippy, neat electric vehicles. Electrification allows the increasing amount of renewable electricity in grids worldwide, as outlined above, to then “decarbonise” other sectors that traditionally run on fossil fuels – like cars or heating in buildings.

Electrification is a positive development, but it’s not without its issues. Elements like cobalt, for example, will be needed to meet demand for electric vehicles in the future, and these can come with an environmental and social impact, so sourcing is important.

Carbon capture

Put simply, this is grabbing CO2 and stopping it going into the atmosphere where it will contribute to global warming. Carbon capture can be used to trap CO2 from the waste gas at a fossil-fuel power station, when it can then either be used in certain industrial functions or buried underground to permanently stop it contributing to climate change.

Some companies are also now developing technology to capture CO2 directly from the air, which could theoretically help to reverse the impacts of climate change. There are, however, potential issues around cost, energy use and other knock-on impacts of this process. Microsoft, among others, is exploring the technology.

Carbon offsetting

Depending on your viewpoint, we could simply write: “See Greenwashing” here. Or, we could write that offsetting is a necessary evil to counter the CO2 going into the atmosphere from certain “essential” emissions-intensive activities.

Offsetting is a company or individual paying to cancel out emissions from their direct activities by investing in schemes that limit CO2 reaching the atmosphere. In practice, however, it’s fraught with complexities – what happens if the forest I paid to protect disappears in a forest fire? What if the technology I’m investing in doesn’t remove enough CO2 to match my activities? Would the project I’m supporting have happened anyway without my involvement?

These factors and others relating to poor-quality carbon offset credits generated from substandard schemes mean offsetting should only really be considered as a last resort. There’s also the small issue of there not being enough land available for all companies to rely on them.

Which leads us to end on…

Net zero

Possibly the most on-trend sustainability term, “net zero” is the end point for many country and company emissions plans that are aiming to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from their activities entirely. In order to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the world needs to reach net zero by around mid-century. 

This means cutting emissions as much as possible, and then balancing out anything left by removing the equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. This can be done through carbon capture (see above), and by natural solutions like planting trees.

As with many of the concepts here the devil is in the detail but, in order to reach net zero, all of the other terms above will need to be carefully considered.

One thing’s for sure – you will be seeing a lot more of all of them.