Sustainability A-Z: The Terms You Need to Know in 2021

“Sustainability” has become an all-encompassing term used as shorthand for something along the lines of: everything good for the planet and people. Having morphed into an umbrella term for a range of environmental, social and economic factors and issues, this term’s importance is undeniable in 2021.

The rising popularity and trendiness of sustainable habits, products and services has brought a number of new terms into the sphere of common knowledge, giving many of us some work to do in terms of mastering these new words.

We know that the fast-paced movement towards sustainability has left some people behind, leaving them baffled and confused by the new terms circulating throughout social media and the world wide web.

This is why we’ve put together this list of terms relating to sustainability. Keep reading if you’re looking to expand your knowledge from simple and clear definitions of the most common sustainable terms thrown around today.

Sustainability Terms A-Z


Refers to the responsibility of different actors, whether that’s public and private organisations or individuals, for their actions and impact.

This goes way beyond the minimum legal requirements, relying on voluntary commitment from companies to deliver high social and environmental standards.


Biodegradable refers to items which will degrade by utilising microorganisms, such as fungus or bacteria, over time.

The key difference between compostable and biodegradable is that compostable refers to products which are broken down under certain conditions, whereas, biodegradable refers to products which use microorganisms within themselves to break down.

While biodegradable products demonstrate progression, they are far from perfect. Many biodegradable plastics need to be exposed to high levels of heat to break down; a very unlikely occurrence if they end up in our oceans (as they so often do).

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

The process where carbon that has been emitted from energy production is captured and diverted into storage areas in order to reduce the CO2 released into our atmosphere.

Carbon Footprint

The greenhouse gas emissions released for an activity or organisation over a given time period.

Carbon Neutral

Carbon neutral means balancing the carbon you emit with the amount you sequester or offset. In other words, you are intaking as much carbon as you are releasing into the atmosphere.

Carbon Offsetting

Involves reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through the purchase of credits from emissions reduction projects or carbon trading schemes.

Carbon Sequestering

The process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, for example through tree planting.

Carbon Sink

A carbon sink is an absorber of carbon dioxide; for example, oceans and forests are natural carbon sinks.

Circular Economy

The creation of a system where goods are designed and developed in a way that reduces waste and increases the use and reuse of resources used in production processes.

Climate Change

Indicates significant changes in measures, such as temperature and precipitation, to the climate which have been experienced for a long time.


Anything that can be broken down in the home or a compost system is deemed compostable. This includes things like leftover food, e.g. vegetable cut-offs, potato peels and banana skins.

Conscious Capitalism

A more recent form of capitalism seeking to benefit people and the environment rather than being exclusively focused on profit.

Conscious Consumerism

This is where eco-conscious consumers put their money where their mouth is and purchase responsibly produced products and services.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The plan a business has to reduce its impact on environmental, social and political issues.

For example, at Kinsume we are trying to promote sustainable lifestyles by planting trees for every purchase on our affiliate marketplace. You can learn all about our ‘plant with every purchase’ initiative over on our trees page.


Cruelty-free (CF) refers to products (often in the cosmetics niche) that have not been tested on animals.

If you’re looking to try out some fantastic CF brands then check out this list from one of our favourite eco-conscious bloggers. You’ll also find a few of the best CF certifications to look out for on your beauty products.


A form of recycling where items that have been previously wasted are converted into lower value items than their previous form. One example is using old plastics to make lower quality items like fleece.

There’s a huge need for downcycling because of the technological challenges associated with recycling low quality materials.


A widely used term in today’s world, eco-friendly refers to products and services which are not harmful to the environment.

This is not a certification you can go out and apply for, instead it indicates that a company has made specific decisions to try to limit their impact on the environment throughout when sourcing, manufacturing and packaging their products.

Ethical Fashion

Ethical and sustainable fashion are often used by people in an interchangeable manner. There’s key differences to be aware of though.

For example, ‘ethical fashion’ is centered around the social impact of the fashion industry and covers a wide range of issues, from living wages and working conditions to animal welfare.

Fair Trade

This is another common term most will have come across in supermarkets and other stores.

Fair trade refers to the general movement focusing on the support of producers, the protection of workers’ rights and the support of the environment. If you come across Fair Trade on a specific product or brand it means it’s been certified by an independent organisation and it meets specific and pre-agreed standards.

Fairtrade, on the other hand, refers specifically to products and brands who have been certified by the organisation, Fairtrade International, so be aware of this acute difference.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion indicates a business model of the mass production of cheaply made, “on trend” items sold at a low price.

It capitalises on people’s desire to stay fashionable and plays into the idea that wearing the same thing more than once makes you unfashionable. Ultimately, it plays a huge role in the toxic systems of over production and consumption that have turned fashion into one of the largest polluters in the world.

Global Warming

The consequences of the greenhouse gas effect caused by humans, leading to the warming of our planet.

Green Living

This is a lifestyle that aims to sustain a healthy environment from actions in the home and within the community. Some considerations include reducing waste, curbing toxic substances and reducing the use of power and water.

Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse gas effect relates to the gases, produced naturally and by human activities, that have contributed or are contributing to the warming of our planet by trapping the sun’s rays.


A term that’s significance has grown dramatically in the last few years. This is when a company falsely claims or lies about their production processes or products being eco-friendly in some way.

As green products and initiatives have become more popular you see many infamously large polluters jumping on the bandwagon and trying to pretend they care for the environment in order to win public support.

Linear Economy

The traditional model for producing goods where new resources are used to make goods which are then discarded at the end of the product life-cycle.


All about stripping back the unnecessary products in your life and keeping things that provide real value and pleasure.

To give an example, in fashion, it might be a small number of quality clothes that you love and wear regularly, often referred to as a capsule wardrobe.

The main idea is that the less you have the less you waste and the smaller your impact.

Modern Slavery

The exploitation of others for personal or commercial gain, whether it involves making clothes, serving food, farming, working in factories or houses. This often includes the use of force, coercion, the abuse of vulnerability and deception.


The term “organic” signifies raw materials which have not been genetically modified, nor used any chemical pesticides or insecticides in their farming processes.

As a protected title in the food industry, products and producers must follow the guidelines and procedures of one of the 8 organic control bodies in the UK to use “organic” on any of their labels.

Similarly, among actors in the fashion industry organic cotton is becoming increasingly sought after. There are a number of organisations, including the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), who help consumers to locate certified organic clothing.


Anything that can be reused or broken down and transformed into new products can be classed as recyclable.

Items that can either be reused or broken down and converted into new products are considered recyclable. For example, old magazines can be upcycled into wastebaskets or decorative pieces of wall art instead of being tossed into the rubbish bin.

Slow Fashion

This term, coined by Kate Fletcher at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, is a movement focusing on fashion which considers sustainable processes and resources used to make clothing.

The main goal is to inspire people to buy less at a higher quality so their clothing lasts longer and the treatment of the people, animal and planet utilised to produce the products is far more ethical.

Social Enterprise

This refers to organisations that tackle social or environmental problems while at the same time having their own systems for generating a profit. This is funded either partially or wholly by reinvesting profits back into the business or community.


The basic premise of sustainability is that all aspects of the manufacture of a product or service fulfil the needs and requirements of the present whilst ensuring that enough resources are left for future generations.

However, the term often extends further than this to encompass issues of human equity and economic relief. Therefore, for a brand to be truly sustainable they need to be a leader against the societal and economic imbalances in our world by making transparent and ethical changes to the structure of their business model.

Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable fashion is all about the production of items in environmentally and socio-economically fair ways.

This applies to all stages of the product’s life cycle, from the design, raw material production, manufacturing, transportation, storage, marketing and sales, to the use, reuse, repair and recycling of the product and its components.

There are a growing number of companies out there who are paying close attention to the various stages of their production, for example People Tree, who are open and transparent about pretty much every stage of their production.


For companies this term has become hugely important in recent years. It refers to a company knowing or being able to trace its supply chains from start to finish. This is crucial to transparency, as without properly tracing the journey of your products you cannot be truly transparent with your customers.


The practice of being open and sharing information about the who, what and where involved in the production of a product. This usually involves companies sharing their sourcing, production and packaging practices for the life cycle of a product from start to finish.

It allows customers to know exactly what they are buying and what the cost of producing it was.


This is all about repurposing and reusing old materials to make something completely new and of better quality. For example, turning old magazines into decorative wall art or using old bedding sheets to make face masks.

When it comes to upcycling, the focus is on removing waste from our systems. It generally uses less energy than recycling, having a greater impact on the environment as a result.


A way of living which looks to exclude all exploitation and cruelty to animals in the production of our food, clothing and other products.   

Zero Waste

Encouraging waste prevention through the redesign of resource life cycles in a way that allows all products to be reused. The key goal is to stop so much rubbish being sent to landfill or the ocean.

Wrap Up

I hope this little glossary has helped clear up any question marks you had for the ever growing number of terms under the umbrella of sustainability.

Are there any other terms you’ve come across you’d like made clear?

Comment below and we’ll add them to the list for our next list of terms relating to sustainability!

Thanks for reading 🙂

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