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Making Sense of Sustainability Buzzwords

By Mekita Rivas

You don’t have to scroll very far these days to come across that word. It’s a term that’s become so commonplace, it’s easy to forget that it’s a relatively new addition to our collective lexicon: sustainable

Merriam Webster has a couple definitions, but the gist is that anything described as “sustainable” should relate to “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” If something is sustainable, it’s ideally going to last for a really long time. Another way to think about it: practicing sustainability is an act of preservation. By making sustainable choices, we’re working to keep our finite resources around for future generations. 

With the term in frequent rotation, its actual meaning can get lost in the conversation. Plus, though there’s a law on the books that says sustainability is an environmental policy in the United States, there’s far less governmental guidance on what can be marketed as sustainable. Consumers, then, have to take the lead on researching the brands and businesses they support to ensure that sustainability isn’t just on-trend language being used to sell products. But it doesn’t stop with “sustainable.” Dozens of sustainability buzzwords are now dotting our feeds and popping up on product pages, and it’s hard to keep track of what they mean. To help sort through all the sustainable language madness, we’ve scoured the world wide web for general definitions of the most frequently used sustainability buzzwords. Although this list may not be exhaustive, it’s definitely a solid resource to refer to whenever you’re caught wondering about the difference between “biodegradable” and “compostable” (more on that very below). 

Ready for a crash course in sustainability linguistics? Grab your reusable water bottle and take a seat in our virtual classroom. 

Biodegradable: capable of being broken down in some way, shape, or form through bacteria and living organisms

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases (specifically carbon dioxide) emitted by something or someone during a period of time

Carbon neutral: having or resulting in no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere 

Carbon offsetting: an action (i.e. planting trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere 

Carbon sequestration: the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide

Circular economy: a regenerative approach to economic development that’s designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment in a holistic manner by separating economic growth from the consumption of finite resources 

Closed-loop: a system in which businesses or entities reuse the same materials over and over again to create new products/services

Compost: a mixture of mostly decayed organic matter, typically used for fertilizing land. For more info on what is compostable and how to compost, click here.

Cruelty-free: developed or produced without inhumane testing on animals

Divestment: the disposal of assets, usually for ethical, financial, or political reasons 

Eco-friendly: not harmful to the environment and/or not having a bad effect on the natural world

Emissions: gases and particles that go into the air from various sources, most commonly cars, power plants, and other means of transportation 

Energy efficient: using less energy to perform the same task, thus eliminating energy waste

Ethically-made/ethically-sourced: the process of ensuring that products are made via responsible and sustainable methods (including but not limited to guaranteeing the workers who make products are paid living wages, all human rights are met, and factories are clean and safe work environments)

FSC-certified: a certification indicating that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits 

Green Cell Foam: an environmentally sustainable and functional packaging material made from U.S.-grown corn (it’s compostable and can be dissolved in sinks for safe, quick disposal). Learn more about Green Cell Foam here.

Green energy: electricity produced from solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and low-impact small hydroelectric sources

Green New Deal: a series of proposed laws that create a big-picture plan for tackling climate change, which was introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts

Greenwashing: the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are manufactured to give the appearance that they’re more environmentally friendly than they really are

Non-toxic: doesn’t contain ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses (like hormone disruption, cancer) in humans, but that also doesn’t have toxic effects on the environment (pollution, harming wildlife) 

Pre-consumer waste: materials discarded before they were ready for consumer use (i.e. trimmings from paper production, defective aluminum cans, etc.) 

Post-consumer waste: materials discarded after they were used by consumers (basically a fancy term for “garbage” or items that end up in the landfill)

Recycling: to make a material available for reuse 

Renewable resources: can be used repeatedly and doesn’t run out because it’s naturally replaced (i.e. solar energy, wind energy, and geothermal pressure)
Sustainable: a method of harvesting or using a resource so the resource isn’t depleted or permanently damaged 

Sustainably-sourced: uses ingredients or materials that are sustainably farmed (requires an analysis of social, ethical, and environmental performance factors)

Upcycling: recycling something so the resulting product has a higher value than the original item

Virgin plastic: newly created plastic resin that contains no recycled materials

Learn more about YTTP’s efforts in sustainability here.

Written by Mekita Rivas for Youth To The People