Green Buzzwords: Sustainability keywords from A-Z

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

As more people care more about saving the planet, environmentalism has also become a marketing tool for many. The growing list of green buzzwords or sustainability keywords has been showing up just about everywhere. 

Knowing what these words mean would help us understand and decipher if a company’s goal is sincere or hypocritical. So here we have compiled a list of the most common (and not-so-common) terminologies used in the sustainability field from A-Z.

Green buzzwords: 32 Sustainability keywords from A-Z

Scroll down below to read the meaning of each keyword

  1. Alt
  2. Biocontributive
  3. Biodegradable
  4. Bioplastics
  5. Carbon Footprint
  6. Carbon Neutral
  7. Carbon Offsetting
  8. Carbonomics
  9. Circular
  10. Climate Change
  11. Climate Emergency
  12. Compostable
  13. Eco-friendly
  14. Electric Vehicle (EV)
  15. Energy Efficient
  16. Ethical
  17. Flexitarian
  18. Green
  19. Greenhouse Effect
  20. Greenwashing
  21. Organic
  22. Plant-based
  23. Pollution
  24. Recyclable
  25. Renewable
  26. Reusable
  27. Sustainable
  28. Upcycling
  29. Vegan
  30. Vegetarian
  31. Virus-washing
  32. Zero-waste

Alt

Alt, short for alternative, is commonly used on alternative plant-based food sources like alt-pork, alt-chicken, alt-beef, alt-duck and the like. 

Biocontributive

With consumers wanting to buy products with the least environmental footprint, brands use the word biocontributive, meaning restoring or returning the resources they use. So, for example, a paper product company might say they’re planting x number of trees for y amount of product it sells.

Biodegradable

These are materials that naturally break down to their original compound over time. Then, with the help of bacteria and microorganisms, they will eventually decompose and return to sea or soil. A few examples would be food scraps and paper. However, just because a product says it is biodegradable, it doesn’t mean it’s already safe for the environment. Some biodegradable products are made with harmful chemicals that enter the environment as they break down.

Bioplastics

Compared to conventional plastics made from petroleum, bioplastics are made using organic materials such as cellulose, vegetable oils, or starches. 

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is the measurement of carbon emissions produced by an activity, individual, or product. Everything on this planet has a carbon footprint. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), seeking to reduce your carbon footprint will benefit the planet and one’s health. For example, the organisation suggests cycling or walking instead of riding a vehicle and reducing the consumption of animal meat.

Carbon Neutral

The term carbon neutral means a product or activity’s carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide absorption cancel each other out, leading to net-zero emissions. Most companies attempt to be carbon neutral by participating in carbon offsetting.

Carbon Offsetting

Carbon offsets are attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to achieve carbon neutrality. For example, one might help restore a forest to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions or use solar- or wind-generated energy instead of traditional power supply. 

Carbonomics

Carbonomics is a buzzword used to define the costs of decarbonisation. This year, it was used on Bloomberg’s Future of Energy and Goldman Sachs’ The Green Engine of Economic Report.

Circular

Commonly used in the fashion industry, Circular is a concept of keeping products and materials in circulation instead of always manufacturing new ones. This is done by producing garments with more durable materials for a longer lifespan, participating in luxury resale or thrift shopping, or upcycling. 

Climate Change

Long-term changes in temperatures and weather patterns are referred to as climate change. These shifts may be natural, but human activities have been the primary cause of climate change since the 1800s, owing mostly to the combustion of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and gas), which emit heat-trapping gases.

Climate Emergency

Winning Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2019, a climate emergency is a situation in which urgent action is required to prevent irreversible damage to the environment that can threaten all life on Earth, including humans. Many governments worldwide have declared that we are in a state of climate emergency.

Compostable

Compared to biodegradable materials, compostable products break down faster and do not leave any traces of harmful chemicals. The simplest would be composting leftover food. However, some compostable materials do not decompose easily in landfills and may require special facilities to decompose.

Eco-friendly

A vague term most companies use to imply that their products will not harm the environment.

Electric Vehicle

Also known as EVs, electric vehicles either partially or fully use electricity as its power source. EVs have low running costs and have fewer moving parts to maintain. They’re also environmentally friendly as they do not use fossil fuels to run. Some EVs are even charged on electric power created through hydro-energy.

Energy Efficient

This means a product or an activity uses less energy to provide the power it needs to run compared to similar products or services. Some examples would be an energy-efficient lightbulb, a solar-powered home, or simply turning off appliances you’re not using.

Ethical

Ethical trade is a movement to ensure that companies treat their employees fairly, especially regarding wages, hours, and rights. It’s an agreement to prove that the workers are not being taken advantage of. This is an issue that usually occurs in poorer countries. 

Flexitarian

Flexitarian is a play on the words “flexible” and “vegetarian”. It signifies that diet followers regularly swap meat meals for plant-based foods like fruits, legumes, veggies, and whole grains, but are not strictly vegetarian. 

Green

Refers to pursuing ecologically responsible practices that help the environment and sustain its natural resources.

Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect is a natural process that warms the Earth’s surface. It helps sustain life, and it’s not necessarily evil, as most may assume. Greenhouse gases also help block harmful solar radiation from reaching our planet.

However, if there’s an imbalance due to the increased carbon dioxide levels, it can cause climate change. This would result in extreme weather, food shortages, and other disruptions.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is the practice of creating a false image or presenting unsubstantiated claims to mislead consumers that products and services are truly beneficial to the environment.

Organic

Organic is a term for produce grown without chemicals, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. They’re also not genetically modified (non-GMO). Products are also labelled as organic if their ingredients are.

Plant-based

Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns emphasise meals derived mostly from plants. They contain fruits, vegetables and nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It does not imply that you are a vegetarian or vegan who does not consume meat or dairy products. Plant-based foods typically replace meat with a similar-tasting alternative made from plants, often based on soy or mushrooms.

Pollution

Pollution is defined as the introduction of pollutants into the environment that results in adverse effects. It can be in the form of chemicals or energy, such as noise, heat, or light.

Recyclable

Recyclable materials are products that can be repurposed instead of going into landfills. It can include materials such as paper, glass, fabric, and even plastic. However, most recyclable items can only be reused for a certain time and eventually still get thrown away. That’s why it’s not the most sustainable solution, and many would recommend lessening their material consumption instead.

Renewable

Renewable means resources that will naturally replenish themselves over time. This can include energy, or such as cotton, soy, and even rainwater. A renewable product can also be recycled, composted, or disposed of depending on its composition.

Reusable

Reusable simply means that an item can be used more than once, ideally multiple times, without being changed into a different product. Examples include keep cups, water bottles, tote bags, and bamboo straws. However, reusable items are commonly used in Greenwashing because instead of advising people to lessen their consumption, it only promotes more.

Sustainable

The most common definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 Brundtland Commission report for the United Nations. It defines the concept as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Upcycling

It’s a term used to describe the creative reuse or transforming discarded items (usually with lesser value) or waste into new items with greater artistic or environmental value. 

Vegan

Veganism is the practice of avoiding the consumption of animal products, notably in the diet and the accompanying ideology that opposes the commodity status of animals. Unlike many vegetarians, vegans will not consume products sourced from animal farming, such as milk, cheese or eggs.

Vegetarian

A person who does not eat meat and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.

Virus-washing

Similar to Greenwashing, virus-washing is a new term coined by companies using the recent pandemic for marketing ploys. 

Zero-waste

The term zero-waste is used to the idea of resource conservation through responsible production and consumption. It means that nothing we produce will harm the planet.

However, just like carbon offsetting, this can be misleading because nothing can ever be truly 100 per cent zero-waste.

Final thoughts

With the current state of our environment, these green buzzwords are being used more and more in conversations online and in the media. With frequent misuse, the terminology can sometimes get quite overwhelming. We can only hope that instead of just using jargon, companies will focus on solutions, taking responsibility and explaining to consumers and customers what they really mean.

Think we missed anything? 

Let us know in the comments section.

  • Main image: @DimaBerlin via Twenty20.
Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

A digital content manager based in the Philippines, Kaycee Enerva has written for multiple publications over several years. A graduate of Computer Science, she exchanged a career in IT to pursue her passion for writing. She's slowly practicing sustainability through period cups, and eating more plant-based food.