Demystifying the Buzzwords

Driving Your Sustainability ‘For You’

Emma Menebroker

2/21/20246 min read

Demystifying the Buzzwords Driving Your Sustainability ‘For You’

The field of sustainability can be a difficult terrain to traverse. With new words being created and old ones taking on new meanings, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.  In this article, we will discuss some of the major sustainability buzzwords used in common literature and what they truly mean. This guide can be used to grow your sustainability lexicon or double-check your current understanding.

Let’s Start with the Basics

First, let’s discuss the heavy hitters…

These are the core terms that are bound to appear in almost all sustainability media.  

The most basic of these terms is ‘Sustainability’ itself. The core meaning of this term can be understood as the practice of meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. It encompasses environmental, social, and economic dimensions. In the same vein, ‘Sustainable Development’ builds on this definition, describing the role of sustainable growth to meet the needs of current and future generations. The ‘Three Pillars of Sustainability’, environmental, social, and economic sustainability, comprise the basic components for what we as a society must balance to achieve a more sustainable future. ‘Climate Change’ is another term that is prevalent across all sustainability and environmental-oriented literature. The basic definition of this term is a change in global or regional climate patterns, attributed largely to the increased levels of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) produced by fossil fuels.  All the following vocabulary connects back in some way to these core sustainability terms.

Pillar One: The Economy

If you’re reading articles centered on economic sustainability, then these are the terms you may come across. This terminology will appear in a wide range of non-scientific literature, focused on balancing these two seemingly opposing forces.

The term ‘Circular Economy’ is the central concept used in discussions about rethinking how the environment and economy interact and impact each other. The circular economy refers to an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. It contrasts with the traditional linear economy (make, use, and dispose) by mitigating waste and prolonging resource lifetime. ‘Life Cycle Assessments’ (LCA) are a technique used by producers looking to do their part in this new, more environmentally conscious economy. This assessment is used to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life, from raw material extraction through disposal or recycling. In addition to investing in the longevity of materials, ‘Renewable Resources’ play a central role in the circular economy. Renewable resources are natural capital that can be replenished naturally over time, unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form. Renewable resources are not unlimited though. ‘Resource Scarcity’ is when the demand for a material good is higher than what can be supplied. This dilemma can be avoided if resource extraction is managed and enforced guidelines are in place. ‘Ecosystem Services’ are another central literature term that acknowledges the many benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. These benefits include water purification via healthy waterways, the pollination of crops, and carbon sequestration done by vegetation.

Terms with Carbon at Their Core

Dialing in further, these terms when pop up in your readings on climate change and emissions.

‘Decarbonization’ refers to the process of dramatically decreasing greenhouse gases, including CO2, from the atmosphere. Decarbonization can take various forms, including subsidizing electric cars, regenerating native ecosystems, and investing in renewable energies. The goal of many nations investing in decarbonization is to reach ‘Net Zero Emissions’. This term refers to the act of reaching neutral emissions, where Greenhouse Gases released by human activity is equally counteracted by sequestering actions. Likewise, many nations, businesses, and individuals are investing in ‘Carbon Offsetting’ to meet their net-zero emission goals. Carbon Offsetting is a way for organizations to contribute to environmental projects that decrease CO2 in the atmosphere while balancing their own carbon emissions. Carbon offsetting can take many forms including the implementation of renewable energies, reforestation projects, or the destruction of atmosphere-warming refrigerants. Organizations can also invest in ‘Blue Carbon’ to offset their carbon emissions. Similar to the carbon absorbed by terrestrial forests, blue carbon refers to the carbon absorbed by ocean ecosystems. Some of these essential ecosystems that consume a massive amount of atmospheric carbon include mangrove forests, sea grasses, and marshes.

Addressing the monetary loss associated with carbon emissions, ‘Carbon Pricing’ is a tool used to assess the cost of greenhouse gas emissions on society. Whether it be a loss of property due to sea level rise or the loss of food due to a heat wave, carbon pricing is a metric that allows the heavy greenhouse gas emitters to pay for the damages of climate change on society, as opposed to others facing the harmful impacts. To put this price into perspective, over the past 20 years it has been averaged that climate change events have cost the world’s economy over $16.3 million per hour! (World Economic Forum, 2023).

If you’re reading into the ways you can mitigate your greenhouse gas emissions, you may stumble across the term ‘Carbon Footprint’. This term describes the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by one’s actions. This value can be calculated for the individual (you can calculate your footprint here: as well as for larger organizations.  

Pillar Two: The Environment

In this section, we will discuss terms found in literature that are heavily focused on recovering damaged or endangered ecosystems and improving local ecosystems for humans and other species.

One of the central terms in environment-oriented literature is ‘Ecosystem’. This term refers to a living community within a specific region that interacts with the surrounding physical environment, including the atmosphere, water, and soil. ‘Biodiversity’ is another central term which refers to the variability of life on Earth. Likewise, the term ‘Conservation’ refers to the act of preserving, protecting, and restoring natural ecosystems, to prevent the loss of integral species. When looking for ways to enact conservation, Environmental Stewardship’ is one avenue. This term is used to describe the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices that enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being. Environmental Impact Assessments’ (EIAs) are another more technical way to perform conservation.  EIAs are a procedure that ensures that all environmental implications are taken into account before decisions are made. They involve a detailed examination of the effects of proposed projects on the environment.

Pillar 3: Society

The terminology referencing the third pillar of sustainability, society, is often employed in literature discussing the role of communities in climate change mitigation efforts. There is also an abundance of terminology used for referencing environment-focused social movements.

‘Urban Resilience’ is a term that refers to the ability of a community to recover in the face of chronic or acute stress experiences. ‘Sustainable Urban Development’ can be an effective tool for fostering urban resilience. This urban development approach seeks to create cities that are livable, equitable, and conducive to the well-being of all its inhabitants, minimizing environmental impact and promoting resource conservation. Another term that you are likely to come across is Fair Trade’. This term refers to a social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries achieve equitable trading conditions and promote sustainability. It focuses on the rights of workers, fair wages, safer working conditions, and environmental standards.

When diving into the world of various environmental products, you will come across many variations of ‘Green Certifications’. These are intended to be indicators to consumers of the standards and ethics behind businesses and their products. The term ‘Greenwashing’ describes deceptive marketing strategies by which a company falsely claims to have taken environmentally friendly actions or to have environmentally friendly products that appear more sustainable than they truly are. Products designated as Eco-Friendly’ go the extra mile to become environmentally conscious, assuming greenwashing is not at play. This term refers to goods, services, policies, and practices that cause minimal harm to the environment. It’s often used to describe products that contribute to green living or practices that help conserve resources. Zero Waste’ is another movement that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal of zero waste movements is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or dumped in the ocean. An eco-conscious method that is often used to reach zero waste is ‘Upcycling’. This term refers to a form of recycling where instead of converting waste materials into new materials, one transforms them into products of better quality, increasing their value and longevity. Products described as ‘Biodegradable’ are a middle ground between disposable products and zero waste. This term describes materials or products that can be broken down naturally by microorganisms (such as bacteria or fungi) into water, carbon dioxide, and biological matter, reducing their impact on the environment when disposed of. While this list of social-oriented terms is only scraping the surface, many of these words can be found in a variety of sustainability-oriented media and literature.

As we navigate the complexities of sustainability, it's crucial to understand the impact of our actions on the environment, economy, and society. Circular Stream Engineering embodies the essence of these discussions, integrating principles such as the circular economy, renewable resources, and sustainable development into our core operations. Our commitment to minimizing waste, maximizing resource efficiency, and fostering a sustainable future is at the heart of everything we do. By embracing the concepts outlined in this guide, we not only contribute to a healthier planet but also demonstrate leadership in sustainable practices. Let's continue to work together toward a more resilient and sustainable world, where our actions today ensure a thriving environment for future generations.


Bennett, Paige. “Climate change is costing the world $16 million per hour: study”. World Economic Forum. Accessed 19 February 2024.