Sustainability Terminology: A Glossary

Sustainability Terminology: A Glossary
| 11 Min read

According to the National Geographic, “Sustainability is the practice of using natural resources responsibly today, so they are available fosusar future generations tomorrow.” (Sustainability, 2022)

Lately, the word ‘sustainability’ has become a buzzword in many industries. Do the various terminologies within the realm of sustainability confuse you? Scroll through our glossary to learn the meaning behind some commonly-used words.

  1.  3 R’s

    The 3 R’s are an approach to save landfill space & keep useful material within the economy. They stand for ‘Reduce’ ‘Reuse’ and ‘Recycle’.
  2. Alternative Energy Source

    Alternative energy sources are those sources of energy that are not derived from fossil fuels, and therefore emit little-to-no greenhouse gases (GHGs) like CO2. Eg: Solar Power, Wind Power, Hydro Power.
  3. Biodegradable
    You can call something biodegradable if it can be decomposed by living organisms such as bacteria; therefore avoiding pollution.
  4. Biodiversity

    Biodiversity can be referred to the variety of life found in a natural ecosystem i.e. the variety of flora, fauna, and even fungi & microorganisms (such as a water bear). The existence of these species work in tandem within an ecosystem, supporting each others’ existence – the rise or fall of a particular living being can cause an imbalance in the biodiversity of the place.
  5. Biofuel

    Biofuels used as an alternative to fossil fuels are renewable energy sources that are obtained from living/biological materials such as animal and plant matter (eg: grass, wood, crops, trees, animal & agricultural waste). Commonly used biofuels are biodiesel, corn ethanol.
  1. Carbon Credits

    Carbon credits are tradable certificates/permits that allow an individual/entity to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases. These tradable certificates can be purchased from authorised sources to make up for harmful emissions generated.
  2. Carbon Footprint

    The word ‘footprint’ is a metaphor used for the impact caused by human activity. Carbon Footprint, therefore, means the amount of carbon released into the natural environment due to the activities of an individual, organisation or a community.
  3. Carbon Neutral
    Being carbon neutral means that an individual/organisation/community has hit the balance between emitting carbon & absorbing it back from the atmosphere. Eg: If a company is generating X amount of emissions, by setting up solar-powered infrastructure that reduces the equivalent X amount of strain on the environment, they are carbon neutral.)
  4. Carbon Offset
    Carbon Offset means to reduce or remove carbon dioxide emissions/greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for the emissions generated elsewhere.
  5. Circular Economy
    This is a model of production & consumptions that involves sharing, reusing, recycling, upcycling existing materials and products as long as possible to derive maximum value from its existence.
  6. CFCs
    Chlorofluorocarbons aka CFCs are chemical compounds that are released into the atmosphere (through applications like air conditioners, refrigerators, etc) and are known to deplete the Earth’s atmospheric layer of ozone that blocks harmful UV rays from the sun.
  7. Climate Action

Climate Actions refers to the efforts & actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to build resilience & reduce climate-related impacts. This includes but is not limited to change in policies, lifestyles, etc.

  1. Cleantech
    Clean technology aka Cleantech refers to a process, service or a product that reduces negative environmental impacts through various measures such as improving energy efficiency, sustainable resource usage. This is a blanket term that consists of a wide variety of eco-friendly technologies & processes.
  2. Compostable
    Something can be called compostable if it is capable of undergoing biological decomposition at the rate consistent with similar organic materials. One must remember that for a compostable item to disintegrate into a natural, non-toxic element, it requires the presence of heat, humidity and microorganisms.
  1. Conscious Consumerism
    Conscious consumerism (aka ethical/green consumerism) is the concept of intentionally making purchase decisions with the belief that the purchase has a positive socio-economic & environmental impact.
  2. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
    Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR is a concept in management where organisations involve social & environmental causes in their operations & interactions with their stakeholders. In India, companies are required to spend at least 2% of their net profits (over the preceding 3 years) as CSR.

    According to UNIDO, “Corporate Social Responsibility is a management concept whereby  companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business  operations and interactions with their stakeholders. CSR is generally  understood as being the way through which a company achieves a balance  of economic, environmental and social imperatives (“Triple-Bottom-Line-  Approach”), while at the same time addressing the expectations of  shareholders and stakeholders.”
  3. Decompose
    Decompose or decay means to separate into simpler compounds. Eg: microbes in the soil decompose organic waste into a mix of carbon dioxide & methane.
  4. Deforestation
    The reduction of forest space is known as deforestation. Although natural-fires and tree-diseases could result in deforestation, human activities are the main causes of deforestation across the globe such as agriculture, urbanisation, mining activities, etc.
  5. Eco-anxiety
    The extreme sense of worry about the harm caused to the environment by human activity & climate change.
  1.  Ecological breakdown
    An Ecological breakdown is when an ecosystem suffers a serious & possibly permanent damage that hampers its capacity to support life. This could result in the mass extinction of various flora, fauna & fungi.
  2. Eco-conscious
    An eco-conscious person/brand/organisation is someone who shows concern for the environment & are sensitised to ecological issues.
  3.  Ecological Footprint
    The word ‘footprint’ is a metaphor used for the impact caused by human activity. According to WWF, “the simplest way to define ecological footprint would be to call it the impact of human activities measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the goods consumed and to assimilate the wastes generated.
  4. Emissions
    An emission is something that has been released or discharged through an activity (natural or human-caused) – emissions consist of material like gas, liquid, sound, heat, light, radiation, etc.
  5. Erosion
    Erosion refers to the geological process of the slow destruction of materials due to it wearing away due to various forces. Eg: Soil erodes over time due to wind, water, etc. The same occurs with rock as well.
  6. ESG
    ESG refers to Environmental, Social and Governance parameters used to evaluate organisations/countries on their growth towards sustainability. ESG scores or ratings are an objective evaluation with respect to Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues.
  7. E-waste
    Electronic waste (e-waste) is discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are to be sent for refurbishment, reuse, resale, recycling through material recovery, or disposal are also considered e-waste.
  8. Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR)
    Extended Producer Responsibility is a policy under which manufacturers of products are given the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer material. EPR can also be seen as a strategy to add to the MRP all the environmental costs associated with the product (throughout its life cycle).
  9. Extinction
    Extinction is the dying out of species within an ecosystem. Some of the reasons for the extinction of flora, fauna & fungi are land degradation & habitat loss, over exploitation like hunting or fishing, introduction of invasive species, climate change, etc.
  1. Fair Trade
    Fair Trade is a certification that aims to secure the execution of a defined set of standards in the production & supply of a product or ingredient. Eg: Fair Trade for farmers & workers means: workers’ rights, safe working conditions, fair pay, etc. For consumers, the Fair Trade certificate implies ethically produced goods.
  2. Fast Fashion
    Fast Fashion refers to any & all clothing that mass-market retailers produce rapidly in response to changing fashion trends. According to The Good Trade, fast fashion is cheap, trendy & disposable which makes the impulsive purchase process easy & affordable.
  3. Fracking
    Fracking is a technique to recover gas & oil from the earth – it involves drilling into the earth and inducing a high-pressure mix of water, sand & chemical at a rock so as to force open any fissures to extract oil or gas.
  4. Food security
    Currently, according to the Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

    Simply put, Food Security is a citizens’ ability to avail, access & afford food that meets their dietary requirements & preferences. (The lack of Food Security is called as Food Insecurity)
  5. Global Warming
    According to NASA, Global Warming is “the long-term heating of Earth’s surface observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. This term is not interchangeable with the term ‘climate change’.

    The increase in the overall temperature of the earth is said to be caused by human activity over centuries – and the rise of greenhouse gases & other pollutants.
  6. Greenhouse Effect
    According to NASA, the Greenhouse Effect is “a process that occurs when gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap the Sun’s heat. This process makes Earth much warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is one of the things that makes Earth a comfortable place to live but also is leading to its decline due to human-induced climate change.
  1. Greenhouse Gases (GHGs)
    According to NASA, Greenhouse gases are “the gases in Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They let sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but they prevent the heat that the sunlight brings from leaving the atmosphere.

    The following are some commonly known gases that come under this category. Namely – water vapour, CO2, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Chlorofluorocarbons, among others.
  2. Greenwashing
    A company/brand/organisation is known to be greenwashing if their communication, branding & marketing strategies revolve around being environmentally-friendly or conscious than actually taking action to minimise their environmental impact. It’s known as a deceitful gimmick to mislead consumers who prefer eco-friendly goods.
  3. IPCC
    According to Nature.org, “IPCC stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is the scientific group assembled by the United Nations to monitor and assess all global science related to climate change.

It was created to provide regular scientific assessments on the effects, future risks as well as adaptation & mitigation of climate change. Through these assessments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determines the state of knowledge on climate change.

  1.  Invasive Species
    According to National Geographic, an invasive species is “an organism that isn’t native to a particular area. These species can cause great economic and environmental harm to the new area.

The introduction and/or spread of these species outside of their natural distribution threatens biological diversity. Invasive species exist in all taxonomic groups (flora, fauna, fungi & other microorganisms) and can affect all ecosystems that exist on the Earth.

  1. ISO Standards
    According to ISO.org, ISO Standards are “internationally-agreed, quality management standards to help work more efficiently and reduce product failures

    Simply put, ISO Standards are like a formula that describe the acceptable method to create a product/deliver a service/manage process, etc. They cover a whole range of activities within the realm of business.
  2. Kyoto Protocol
    The Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997) was an international agreement that aimed to reduce CO2 emissions and the presence of GHGs. An important part of Environmental & Conservation history, the Kyoto Protocol was replaced by the Paris Agreement.
  3. Landfill
    A landfill is a government-regulated zone for monitoring & treating waste. It is the process of getting rid of massive amounts of discards aka waste. All kinds of waste end up in landfills, like organic waste, hazardous waste, solid waste, wet waste, recyclable waste.
  4. Land Degradation
    Land degradation is the decline/loss of land health caused by direct or indirect human-led activities.

    The IPCC defines it as “a negative trend in land condition, caused by direct or indirect human-induced processes including anthropogenic climate change, expressed as long-term reduction or loss of at least one of the following: biological productivity, ecological integrity, or value to humans”.

    Land Degradation is a global challenge that affects all humans as food insecurity, natural hazards, loss of biodiversity, extinction of flora fauna & fungi. According to research, this is happening at an alarming pace & is contributing to a global decline in the productivity of croplands.
  5. Life-cycle Assessment (LCA)
    LCA is a methodology to assess environmental impacts caused during the life cycle of a product, process or service.
  6. Microplastics
    Officially defined as plastics less than five millimetres (National Geographic) in diameter. Microplastics are either larger pieces of plastic broken down or tiny plastic particles that result from commercial processes. They are a major pollutant to the Earth & are known to affect the health of all species & the environment.
  1. Nature-based Solutions

According to the World Wildlife Organisation, “Nature-based solutions refer to a suite of actions or policies that harness the power of nature to address some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as threats to water security, rising risk of disasters, or climate change.

Simple put, they are solutions that tap into nature’s power to address challenges for the well-being of all. They are a way to naturally protect, restore or manage ecosystems. Eg: Restoring mangrove to strengthen the land around the coasts, Building green roofs to minimise the damage caused by rainwater, etc.

  1. Natural Capital
    Natural Capital refers to the stock/inventory of resources that the Earth holds. It holds major financial value as the use of it drives many businesses. Eg: soil, air, water, all living things, geology, etc.
  2. Non-renewable Resources
    Non-renewable resources are those natural capital whose stock will run out soon or those that cannot be replenished easily. Most non-renewable energy sources are fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
  3. Net-zero
    To be “net zero” is to achieve a balance between the amount of emissions produced & put out into the Earth vs those being retracted/removed as a way to reduce global warming.
  4. Organic
    In food production, organic refers to produce that was grown/produced without the use of chemical, artificial fertilisers, pesticides & its likes.
  1. Paris Agreement
    Adopted in 2015 (superseding the Kyoto Protocol) The Paris Agreement / Paris Accords / Paris Climate Accords is a legally-binding international treaty on climate change that covers the mitigation, adaptation & finance aspect of climate change.
  2. Permaculture
    Permaculture is a kind of land design & management that is inspired by & adopts the arrangements documented in flourishing natural ecosystems.

    It includes a set of design principles derived using whole-systems thinking.
    Eg: The use of mulch on the plant bed mimics the leaf cover on a forest floor; growing complete ecosystems that include trees, vines, shrubs, moss, fungus, etc that facilitate the growth of life.
  3. Plastic Credits
    Like Carbon Credits, Plastic Credits are legal certificates that authenticate conformity as per the recycling standards set by the EPR Policy of Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016. These certificates are issued by accredited re-processors or recyclers based on the amount of plastic waste recycled.
  4. Recovered Material
    According to ISO 14021:2016(E), the material that would otherwise be disposed of as waste or seen as discards but instead have been collected & recovered in lieu of recycling or a manufacturing process is called as Recovered Material.
  5. Recycling
    The process of collecting ‘waste’ material & converting it into new reusable materials is called recycling. Recycling is an important step in reducing the waste that ends up in landfills, oceans, etc.
  6. Renewable Resources
    Renewable Resources are those natural resources that can be replenished over a period of time. Eg: Sunlight, Wind.
  7. Shared Value
    According to López, B., & Monfort, A. (2017). “Creating shared value in the context of sustainability is a way to integrate stakeholders in business management. In addition, companies use a specific communication strategy to communicate the results of sustainable activities involving strategic stakeholders.
  8. Single-use
    Used as an adjective, “single-use” means something that is designed only to be used once & disposed after use. Eg: Paper Cups, Plastic/paper Straws, Face Masks, Vapes, Takeout boxes.
  9. Social Capital
    Social Capital refers to shared values or resources that allow individuals/organisations/governments to work together as a group to achieve a common goal. This allows the potential ability to obtain resources or information from each other.
  10. Solar Panels
    Solar Panels are a form of renewable energy – they are devices that capture energy from the sun to be converted into electricity.
  11. Sustainability Literacy
    The word ‘literacy’ in sustainability literacy is beyond the meaning of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’. It involves displaying – through action – one’s awareness of issues that hamper the interdependent relationship between the Environment, Society & Governance (ESG). It also entails having the information & working knowledge to make accountable & responsible decisions that lead to a cleaner world & a greener future.
  12. Sustainability Report
    A sustainability report discloses & communicates an organisation’s/government’s ESG goals & their progress towards them. The reports should also cover the negative impacts of their work.
  13. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
    Set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, the 17 interlinked SDGs (also known as Global Goals) are a “shared blueprint for peace & prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”. These 17 SDGs are to be achieved by 2030. Learn more about the SDGs here.
  14. System Thinking
    In complex contexts, system thinking has been used as a way to explore & develop effective action steps. The approach involves looking at individual decisions and their systematic consequences.
  15. Triple Bottom Line
    This theory supports that organisations or brands should also focus on social & environmental issues as much as they focus on profits. The triple bottom line can be broken down into the ‘three Ps’, namely, Profit, People, Planet.
  16. Upcycle
    Also known as ‘creative reuse’, upcycling is the process of taking a used product & adapting it in an innovative way to derive a different function from it. Eg: Taking an old plain chair & painting it is a way to upcycle the chair.
  17. Value Chain
    The complete lifecycle of a product or a process is called a value chain. This includes material sourcing, production, consumption, disposal or recycling methods.
  18. Vegan
    A vegan is someone who doesn’t consume any products derived from animals or through animal cruelty. (This includes not consuming dairy, eggs, fish, honey, leather products, etc)
  19. Water Scarcity
    According to UN Water, “Water scarcity is a relative concept. The amount of water that can be physically accessed varies as supply and demand changes. Water scarcity intensifies as demand increases and/or as water supply is affected by decreasing quantity or quality.
  1. Water Security
    According to UN Water, “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate  quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human  well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against  water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving  ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.
  2. Zero Carbon
    For a product or process to be zero carbon, no carbon emissions must be produced. Eg: A wind farm generating electricity.
  3. Zero Waste
    Zero waste principles focus on waste prevention & encourages the redesign of product life cycles so that they can be reused. The goal of Zero Waste is to avoid sending any trash to the landfills, incinerators or water bodies.


Sustainability. (2022, May 19). National Geographic Society. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/sustainabilityLópez, B., & Monfort, A. (2017). Creating Shared Value in the Context of Sustainability: The Communication Strategy of MNCs. In  (Ed.), Corporate Governance and Strategic Decision Making. IntechOpen. https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.70177

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