An A-Z of the most common terms in sustainability 


Air pollution

Small particles and gases in the air which negatively affect human health and the environment.




Capable of being decomposed through the action of organisms, especially bacteria.



Carbon footprint

Emissions of greenhouse gases (in carbon equivalent) for an activity or organisation over a given period of time.

Carbon neutral

Achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing carbon emitted with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.

Carbon offset unit

or a carbon credit is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2e) saved. They are generated from climate projects, often taking place in developing countries. To make sure the the savings are real, there are globally recognized standards and each unit is given a tracking number to ensure it is fully traceable. Units are made available for purchase on the Carbon Market through independent traders, brokers or banks. Once a unit is purchased, it is cancelled and cannot be use again.

Carbon offsetting

Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by purchasing credits through emissions reduction projects or carbon trading schemes.

Circular economy

An alternative to a traditional linear economy (‘make, use, dispose’) in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, the maximum value extracted from them whilst in use, and then products and materials recovered and regenerated at the end of each service life.

Climate change

Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). Climate change may result from: natural factors, such as changes in the sun’s intensity or slow changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun; natural processes within the climate system (e.g. changes in ocean circulation); human activities that change the atmosphere’s composition (e.g. through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g. deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification, etc.)

Closed loop

Where the materials used to create a product are able to be reused to make the exact same product with no waste produced. This can include production processes and systems such as closed loop water systems. This is the circular economy in practice.


The controlled biological decomposition of organic material in the presence of air to form a humus-like material. Controlled commercial methods of composting include mechanical mixing and aerating and ventilating the materials by dropping them through a vertical series of aerated chambers. At home methods place the compost in piles out in the open air and mixing it or turning it periodically but there is no guarantee that these conditions will be correct. Most compostable products require a separate waste stream and will need transporting to a suitable composting facility. They should not be included in regular waste.

Corporate social responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility: The continuing commitment by businesses to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workplace as well as the local community and society at large.




The removal of trees by humans to make land available for other uses, often for agriculture, construction or manufacturing.



Ethical consumerism

The purchasing of products that do not harm or exploit the workers that help produce a product and to minimize the impact on the environment.




An alternative approach to conventional trade, based on a partnership between producers and purchasers of products. A fair trade commodity price ensures that farmers and workers get a fair share of the benefits of trade, allowing them to plan and be economically safe. A percentage of the commodity price goes into community development projects in the farmers’ community.



Global warming

Is most often used to refer to the greenhouse gas effect caused by human activities.


A term used to describe organisations which present an environmentally friendly image but with little action to support their claims.

Grey water

The water which is produced from homes and offices, from sinks, showers,, baths white appliances.





Chemicals made up of carbon and hydrogen that are found in raw materials such as petroleum, coal and natural gas. These substances contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change, deplete the ozone, reduce photosynthetic ability of plants, and increase occurrences of cancer and respiratory disorders in humans.



Burning waste material to dispose of it. Burning waste releases dioxin, lead, and mercury, greenhouse gas emissions including both biogenic sources and carbon dioxide, and hazardous ash into the atmosphere. Not only is this harmful to the environment it is harmful to the health of human beings based nearby.








A method of disposal of rubbish, by burying it underground

Life cycle

All stages of a product's development, from raw materials, manufacturing through to consumption and ultimate disposal.




Any composted or non-composted organic material, excluding plastic, that is suitable for placing on soil surfaces to restrict moisture loss from the soil and to provide a source of nutrients to the soil.




Natural resources

Naturally occurring substances that are considered valuable in their relatively unmodified (natural) form.



A term signifying the absence of pesticides, hormones, synthetic fertilizers and other toxic materials in the cultivation of agricultural products; "organic" is also a food labeling term that denotes the product was produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act.




PET Plastic

PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester. A clear, tough, lightweight type of plastic, used to make products such as soft drink bottles, food packaging and fabrics.
The plastic is fully recyclable back into PET, but bottles and containers that find their way to the landfill won't biologically degrade.


means any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest. This includes substances intended for use as a plant growth regulator, defoliant, desiccant, or agent for thinning fruit or preventing the premature fall of fruit, and substances applied to crops either before or after harvest to protect the commodity from deterioration during storage and transport. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003).





Activities, including collection, sorting, reprocessing and manufacture of products into new goods.

Renewable energy

Sources of energy which are constantly replenished such as sunlight, wind or the momentum of water (Hydro or Tidal energy)




A method of maintaining current needs without compromising future needs be they economic, environmental or social

Sustainable design

Designing products, services or the built environment in keeping with principles of sustainability.




A concept commonly associated with product stewardship, placing responsibility on brand-owners, retailers, manufacturers or other supply chain partners to accept products returned by consumers once they have reached the end of their useful life. Products may then be recycled, treated or sent to landfill.



United Nations

An international organisation based in New York and formed to promote international peace, security, and cooperation under a charter signed by 51 founding countries in San Francisco in 1945


Value proposition

Is a promise or commitment by a company which applies to their services, products, actions or organisation as a whole. Many value propositions now include sustainability.



Waste audit

Observing, measuring, and recording data and collecting and analysing waste samples.

Waste hierarchy

A concept promoting waste avoidance ahead of recycling and disposal, often referred to in community education campaigns as 'reduce, reuse, recycle.' The UK “waste hierarchy” ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use, then recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill).







Zero waste

Turning waste into resource; the redesign of resource-use so that waste can ultimately be reduced to zero; ensuring that by-products are used elsewhere and goods are recycled, in emulation of the cycling of wastes in nature.