Decoding the Buzzwords: the ultimate glossary of sustainability jargon

Decoding the Buzzwords: the ultimate glossary of sustainability jargon
September 19, 2023

Navigating the world of sustainability can sometimes feel like you're hiking through an unfamiliar jungle—lots of green but not sure where to step next. Fortunately, we're here to help guide you through the buzzword foliage, feat some interesting analogies! So, buckle up your hiking boots, and let's get started.

Sustainability: The Fruit Tree of Life

According to the Brundtland Commission, the definition of sustainability is 'The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

Imagine a fruit tree. It produces enough for us to eat today and also drops seeds, which sprout into new trees for future generations. As long as we don’t harm the tree, it will be there to support life indefinitely. In this sense, sustainability is akin to this fruit tree—we should take only what we need and respect the tree, which will ensure that there’s plenty of fruit left for the generations that follow.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Heat-Trapping Blanket

Greenhouse gases are gases such as carbon dioxide that, when released through things like the burning of fossil fuels, trap heat in our atmosphere. This warming effect is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. The extra radiated heat leads to higher temperatures, higher sea levels, and shifts in global weather patterns (in other words, climate change).

Picture being stuck under a heavy blanket on a hot summer night. Greenhouse gas emissions are like that blanket, trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

Carbon Footprint: Nature's Credit Card Bill

A carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that result from the production, use, and disposal of a product or service. It can also be in relation to the emissions of an individual person, household, or community.

Imagine the carbon footprint as an organisation's 'credit card bill' to the Earth. The higher the bill, the more the company owes to the planet in terms of climate change responsibility.

Fossil Fuels: The Hidden Trouble

Fossil fuels are non-renewable substances formed from ancient (fossilised!) plants and animals deep underground. Examples include coal, oil, and natural gas. When burned, they produce energy and also release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

Fossil fuels are like the hidden monsters in a video game. They seemed like a gift initially, providing abundant energy, but their use has unleashed the 'boss level' challenge of climate change.

Renewable Energy: The Self-Replenishing Buffet

Unlike coal and natural gas, renewable energy refers to power derived from resources that are naturally replenished on a human timescale, such as sunlight, wind, and water flows. They also have little to no emissions (which is why they are termed ‘clean’ sources of energy).

Imagine renewable energy as a self-replenishing buffet. The food (or energy) is constantly being replaced, ensuring that there's always something available without depleting the initial supply.

Carbon Offsetting: Outsourcing your Green Efforts

Carbon offsetting involves individuals or businesses investing in activities that reduce or remove greenhouse gases, in order to compensate for their own emissions somewhere else. This could mean investing in nature based solutions such as tree planting and reforestation, or investing in technology solutions such as renewable energy projects.

Think of carbon offsetting as paying a neighbour to plant trees to make up for the paper you used—neutralising your negative impacts by investing in positive ones somewhere else. It's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to balancing your carbon ledger.

Carbon Insetting: Taking Care of Your Own Backyard

Carbon insetting refers to the practice of reducing or capturing greenhouse gas emissions within a company's own value chain. Unlike carbon offsetting, which invests in external projects to balance out emissions, insetting focuses on internal projects or those directly linked to the company's business activities.

If offsetting is planting trees elsewhere, carbon insetting is planting them in your own backyard, or making sustainable changes within your own supply chain.

Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero: 'Buying a Clean Slate' vs. 'Deep Cleaning Your House'

A company achieves carbon neutrality by measuring its greenhouse gas emissions and then investing in projects that offset these emissions, typically outside its own operations. To claim net-zero status, a company must significantly reduce its emissions within its value chain, abating at least 90% of its total emissions, with the remaining 10% addressed through permanent removals.

Carbon neutral is like buying a clean slate every time you make a mess. Net zero is like deeply cleaning your entire house and removing at least 90% of the dirt and grime, rather than just covering it up.

Circular Economy: A Phoenix from the Ashes

A circular economy works to design out waste and pollution, keep materials and products in use, and regenerate natural systems. It involves understanding the full lifecycle of items, and exploring ways that the life can be extended.  

Much like a phoenix rising from its ashes, the circular economy eradicates waste and pollution, akin to the mythical bird's cleansing fire. It then sustains a continuous loop of material and product use, mimicking the phoenix's own cycle of rebirth. Lastly, it rejuvenates natural ecosystems, just as the phoenix revitalises its surroundings with each new life cycle.

Life Cycle Assessment: The Biography of a Product

Life Cycle Assessment, sometimes called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), is a way to assess the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of a product, process, or service.

Just as a autobiography tells a life story, a Life Cycle Assessment is the biography of a product, charting its course from raw materials to disposal.

Scope 1, 2 and 3: The Emissions Onion

Scopes 1, 2, and 3 encompass the emissions an organisation directly controls, those from outsourced electricity production, and the emissions within its extended value chain, respectively.

Imagine these scopes as layers of an onion; Scope 1 is the innermost layer you touch directly, Scope 2 is the middle layer affected by external sources, and Scope 3 is the outer skin that interacts with the world.

Greenwashing: The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Greenwashing is when a company misleads consumers into believing that its products or services are environmentally friendly when they are not.

Imagine greenwashing as a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'—it appears eco-friendly but reveals its true, harmful nature upon closer inspection.

Cradle to Cradle: The Never-Ending-Journey

Cradle-to-cradle means a product is designed so that its materials and components can be repurposed or recycled indefinitely.

Think of a train that continuously loops on its track. This train represents the cradle-to-cradle concept. Just as the train's components might be refurbished but always remain on track, cradle-to-cradle products are designed to be reused or regenerated, ensuring they never truly 'end' or become waste.

Cradle-to-Grave: The One-Way Ticket

Cradle-to-grave design involves creating products with a limited lifespan that will eventually become waste. The life cycle of the product is a straight line—take, make, waste.

In contrast to cradle-to-cradle, cradle-to-grave is a one-way ticket. Products go from creation to disposal, typically ending in a landfill.

Sustainable Development Goals: The Global To-Do List

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 global goals designed to help reset the direction of the global economy, to one that is more sustainable, equitable, and just.

Think of the SDGs as the global community's to-do list, a set of 17 tasks designed to improve life for everyone on the planet.

In conclusion, navigating the jungle of sustainability buzzwords can be daunting... We hope that with this glossary as your guide, the path ahead is a little clearer! Happy trekking.

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