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23 Sustainability Buzzwords Explained

A little glossary of today’s hottest eco buzz words.

I geek out researching this stuff to share with you all. It’s so fascinating to me. I want to break a few eco-friendly terms down for you as simply as possible. Words like “carbon offsets” and “fast fashion.” Some of it’s a bit sciencey, so hang with me. I think these concepts are crucial. Like so crucial that we may still be able to put out our current dumpster fire if we can all educate ourselves on actionable items to help. We’ve made our mark, that’s clear. It’s time to UnMake Your Mark, and I believe learning this glossary of sustainability terms is a start.  

1. Greenhouse Gas (GHG)

A greenhouse gas (GHG) is a gas that traps heat in our atmosphere, and too much of it is a bad thing for the earth’s atmosphere. Excess gases are emitted into the atmosphere directly from human activity. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through burning trees, coal, natural gas, oil, solid waste, and chemical manufacturing (i.e., creating cement or plastic). Other greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gas. See EPA.gov for an overview of Greenhouse Gases. The takeaway? … GHG=CO2

Greenhouse gases

2. Carbon Neutral 

Carbon neutrality is the idea that a person or company that releases CO2 into the air balances those emissions by removing the equivalent amount of CO2. It takes specific calculations to figure out how much carbon they emit and then a careful plan to reduce emissions by that same amount. A person or company can work towards carbon neutrality by reducing emissions (ex., switching to renewable energy) and offsetting emissions (ex., planting trees). 

3. Net Zero

Carbon neutrality compensates for the gases you emit; net zero is the complete removal of carbon emissions or GHGs. Usually, in this case, there is no need for an offset. 

4. Carbon Negative (a.k.a Climate Positive)

This is better than carbon neutrality because it’s when a person or company removes even more carbon that it emits (going into the negative). Our ecosystem naturally removes carbon (forests, soil, oceans), but scientists are working on mining or capturing the CO2 from the atmosphere to remove and repurpose it. Check out 6 Ways to Remove Carbon Pollution from the Sky from the World Resources Institute. Therefore; carbon negativity is actually V positive 🤯

5. Carbon Credit

The credits are a pollution coupon of sorts. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is the purpose of carbon credits. A carbon credit allows an owner (usually a company) to pollute. 1 credit = 1 ton of CO2 emitted or other equivalent greenhouse gas. Credits help set limits for companies; if they go over, they must purchase more credits. If they reduce emissions, they can sell excess credits to other companies. Read more here: “What is a Carbon Credit?” article by Investopedia.

6. Carbon Offsets

Simply put, this is the action of making up for your pollution by doing something good for the environment, explicitly reducing GHGs. Offsets are ‘activities’ you buy or do that produce sustainable energy to “offset” or counterbalance the use of fossil fuels. What kind of ‘activities’ do offsets include? Investing in forestry (i.e., planting a tree), wind farms, solar energy, hydropower, waste management, and carbon sequestration. There are more. Carbon offsets are the future; I just know it. 

7. Climate Change

I think the United Nations defines it best from this article titled, “What is Climate Change?”. “Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.” These shifts may be natural, such as through variations in the solar cycle. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.” Science is science. 

8. Compost

Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter into fertilizer. Nature knows what’s up. Nature takes its scraps and makes them a conduit for growing something new. Circular. Organic matter = grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, leaves, twigs, paper, and more. These items decompose over time and turn into gold – a nutrient-rich soil, hubba hubba. Composting diverts waste, cuts GHG emissions, and conserves water. 

9. Decarbonization

READ THIS TWICE. Coal, natural gas, crude oil, and petroleum are made from fossils; when used for energy, they are called fossil fuels. All fossil fuels contain carbon and are non-renewable sources of energy. When they burn, they emit carbon dioxide or CO2. When excess carbon dioxide goes into our atmosphere, it’s terrible. It’s causing our climate to change, and plants, people, and animals are at risk. Decarbonization is the idea of reducing carbon that goes into the atmosphere.

10. Deforestation

Deforestation is cutting down trees in forests to clear the land on purpose. 40% of deforestation is used to raise cattle for beef. Clearing trees en masse increases the C02 in the atmosphere because – trees usually absorb it, and now it has nowhere to go. The most significant areas of deforested land are in South America. Hug a tree – we need them. 

11. Reforestation

Reforestation is planting trees in forests with a declining number of trees. Trees are nature’s air filters. Trees filter out excessive GHGs and do much more, such as providing shade, giving animals habitat, protecting from soil erosion (hi roots), and regulating precipitation. Read this article from AmericanForests.org about the relationship between water and forests. As a Capricorn (earth sign), trees have always had a pull on me. Here is one of my favorite quotes, which I read on a placard while visiting the Great Sequoias.

“I never saw a discontented tree.” -John Muir.

12. Circular Economy

“Waste is a design flaw.” -Kate Krebs.

Nature does not waste; it reuses everything thing it produces. Nature is circular. A circular economy minimizes waste by maximizing the lifecycle of extracted resources for reuse. A simple example would be to take a demolished building and reuse the materials in a new construction project – diverting the waste from the landfill. 

Circular Economy

13. Greenhouse Effect

In short, this means the effect of heat becoming trapped inside our lower atmosphere, according to climate.nasa.gov. Usually, this is a good thing. We want to trap SOME greenhouse gases inside our atmosphere because it keeps us warm and cozy, but we do not want too much greenhouse gas lingering, making it too toasty on earth. Think melting ice caps, warming seas, more severe storms, heat waves, and drought. 

14. Energy Efficient

Energy efficiency means using less energy to achieve the same results. According to Energy.gov, “Energy-efficient homes and buildings use less energy to heat, cool, and run appliances and electronics, and energy-efficient manufacturing facilities use less energy to produce goods.” Guess what? This saves money, improves the environment, helps human health, and makes the electric grid more reliable. Typically, moving away from fossil fuels is considered more energy efficient. 

15. Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is cheap clothing that is mass-produced via unethical practices. It cannot last because the quality is so poor. It’s so cheap that most people do not mind if it fades, tears, or rips after a few wears. People are going for quantity over quality, which harms our planet. Companies make cheap clothes from synthetic fabric (made by humans from chemicals). Some synthetic fabrics include nylon, polyester, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and rayon, ALL MADE FROM PLASTIC (derived from fossil fuel). These fabrics leech toxic chemicals into landfills, take forever and ever and ever to biodegrade, and encourage the violation of human rights (poor working conditions and low wages for workers). Here are the biggest violators: Shein, H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy, Top Shop, and more. Think about investing in clothes that last – the benefits are undeniable. Info gathered from this EcoWatch.com article.

16. Fossil Fuels

Coal, oil, natural gas, and petroleum are fossil fuels. Organic matter fossilizes for millions of years deep under the earth’s surface. Humans mine these “fossils” for energy. When you burn fossil fuels, they release carbon dioxide (a GHG, remember?). Human activity utilizes tons of fossil fuel and emits crazy excess CO2. Also, fossil fuels are non-renewable since they take hundreds of millions of years to form.  The Smithsonian has great info on fossil fuels if you want to learn more.

17. FairTrade

Fairtrade is a social movement that pushes for fair prices of goods (internationally), fair labor conditions/practices, fair pay for labor, and sustainable practices by companies. Fairtrade certifications ensure that standards are met for the production and supply of ingredients to protect the environment and people from exploitation. 

18. Greenwashing

Greenwashing is an advertising tactic to make you think a product is eco-friendly or sustainable when it is not. It’s PR spin. It’s not ethical. It’s used by all the big guys who, sadly, have the most significant carbon footprints. Buzz words like “clean,” “natural,” or “green” are some of the culprits. Another example is making the packaging green or nature themed. Greenwashing is used to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumer, so they are unaware of the damage the companies cause to the planet. 

Greenwashing

19. Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is infinite in nature and can be used without running out. Renewable energy is clean energy when it does not pollute our air via by-products. Fossil fuels take millions of years to regenerate; therefore, it is non-renewable energy. Some examples of renewable energy in nature include water, wind, sun, core heat, and plants. Oftentimes, renewable energy can be replenished in a timeframe faster than it is consumed. It’s the wave of the future. 

20. Clean Energy

Clean energy is energy that is renewable and does not emit harmful gases into the atmosphere. Clean energy sources are solar, wind, water, geothermal (heat from the earth’s core), and bioenergy (power from plants i.e., corn, algae, forest floor residue). Dirty energy = fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). IDK about y’all, but plant power is so incredible, no?

Wind energy

21. Sustainability

Here’s my definition: sustainability is ensuring we consciously and carefully use earth’s resources to have enough for today and many tomorrows. Sustainability means giving a flip about the planet instead of pumping it full of chemicals and junk by carefully consuming and reusing the earth’s precious resources. Sustainability aims to help humans, animals, and the earth’s health. 

22. Wish-Cycling

Have you ever put something questionable into the recycling bin, hoping someone somewhere down the line will recycle it? Then you have wish-cycled. I know I have, especially before I knew better. Wish-cycling hinders the recycling process because time is spent untangling, sorting, and removing the non-recyclable items you throw into the recycle bin. Even worse, you may contaminate an easily recyclable item by wish-cycling, thus making both the contaminated item and the wish-cycled item trash. Here’s more on why wish-cycling is a no-no.

23. Zero-Waste

It means “elimination of pollution.” This concept is not easy. It means throwing out no trash, burning NO carbon emissions, and putting nothing into the air, water, or land that harms the planet or its creatures. Oof. I love the sentiment but am often upset by this term’s sheer impossibleness for a modern-day consumer. I like that zero-waste promotes the reduction of single-use everything, which is the worst. However, I personally feel that circular consumption is more attainable for our modern-day society than zero-waste.

I hope this sustainability glossary helps us better understand the need to treat our planet better for the future.

Greta says it best:

“To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself. Your silence is worst of all.” – Greta Thunberg.

Xoxo, 

Jen