Learning the alphabet is critical to learning to read. Similarly, learning the alphabet behind sustainability starts with A to C!
Ever wonder what “carbon neutral” really means? Or what makes a shirt organic? And what the difference is between compostable and recyclable? The more you delve into the realm of sustainability, the more terms there are to learn. Use this glossary to get quick definitions of some of the more common concepts and materials in the industry.
Biodegradable - items like paper or food waste that will eventually break down into their basic components and return to the earth. “In terms of environmental benefits, the best biodegradable material will break down quickly rather than taking years. It leaves nothing harmful behind and saves landfill space,” according to The Balance Small Business. Be aware that not everything marketed as biodegradable meets these standards.
Carbon Footprint - the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon dioxide and methane) from the production, use and disposal of a particular product or service. According to the Nature Conservancy – which features a carbon footprint calculator on its website – the average American has a carbon footprint of 16 tons, one of the highest in the world.
Carbon neutral - you’ve probably seen big brands announce their “carbon neutral” goals. Netflix, for example, plans to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022. Google says it achieved this goal in 2007. Facebook and Apple have set a date of 2030, Amazon is aiming for 2040 and Coca-Cola for 2050. When a person or company becomes carbon neutral, that means their output of greenhouse gases has a net neutral effect on the environment, often because they’ve offset it through various means.
Carbon Offset - businesses, governments and individuals can pay someone else to cut greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by investing in solar or wind energy, planting trees, restoring rainforests or other alternatives. The buyers then get “credit” for that reduction, helping to zero out their own emissions. The practice is not without controversy, but has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. Vox has a good explainer with details on how carbon offsets work.
Chain of Custody - how a product is traced through a supply chain to determine if it meets criteria of an environmental certification or ecolabel.
Circular Economy - the traditional economic model is to take, make and waste – a linear progression. Those in sustainability spheres aspire to a more circular model, based on three principles and driven by design:
- eliminate waste and pollution
- circulate products and materials
- regenerate nature
“A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment,” says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Climate Change - long-term shifts in temperatures and weather. Though it can occur naturally, human activity has been a main factor in climate change in modern times, particularly through the burning of fossil fuels, which produce heat-trapping gases. This simple guide from the BBC explains it in more detail.
Closed-Loop System - the idea is to use the same materials over and over again in production, both to conserve natural resources and to keep items from ending up in a landfill. Patagonia is, for example, an apparel company that encourages consumers to mail in old shirts, which are then broken down into recycled fibers and turned into a new shirt. Patagonia also has a program called "Worn Wear" where people send in pre-worn garments for repair and resale.
Compostable - a product that can decompose into nontoxic natural elements, at a rate similar to other organic materials. Compostable products should not be recycled or thrown in the trash, since these products require special conditions to biodegrade that aren’t necessarily found in a landfill. You can take them to facilities that specialize in composting or sometimes add them to home compost piles.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) - the policies and practices a business adopts to support various social and environmental improvements.
Cradle-to-cradle design - also called circularity, this is when brands design products with their end-of-life in mind, figuring out ways from the very beginning of the product lifecycle to keep them from a landfill, whether it’s through reuse, composting or recycling.
Keep following this week for the complete list of terms A-Z!
Data provided by ASI- Advertising Specialty Institute's PromoForThePlanet initiative.