Glossary of Sustainability Terms

The universe of sustainability has its own lexicon of terms and acronyms.

What does "carbon footprint" really mean? How can our company better understand "Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)" protocols? Where does our company fit in the cycle of "product stewardship"?

Undestanding the language of sustainability can help all of us better communicate how to live and work with improved sustainability practices.

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Accreditation: Third party review and assessment of an organization's conformity with an established standard and certification.

Alternative Energy: 1) Substitutes for existing petroleum liquids, i.e., ethanol, biodiesel, and tar sands substitute energies. 2) Alternatives for generating and storing electrical power are wind, solar, and battery energies.

Attribute: Characteristics or elements of products or services that determine the type of extent of their short- and long-term impacts on the environment and/or human health. Environmental attributes include biodegradability, recyclability, volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor air emissions, hazardous waste, carcinogenicity, and others.


B Corporation: Designation used by for-profit companies which requires companies to meet social sustainability, environmental performance, and accountability standards. This certification allows companies to be transparent to the public. In addition to demonstrating high social and environmental performance, companies must change their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders through a legal commitment. There is no legal liability for companies that fail to meet the certification process. Visit: B Lab.

Blackwater: Contaminated wastewater that must be drained from a building into separate blackwater pipes for extraction. Cannot be mixed with greywater. Wastewater collected from toilets, kitchen sinks, and dishwashers are examples of blackwater.

By-Product: Secondary or incidental product of a manufacturing process (e.g., scrap or emissions).


Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP): Not-for-profit organization that runs the global environmental disclosure system. Each year, CDP takes the information supplied in its annual reporting process and scores companies and cities based on their developments in sustainability. Through this independent scoring methodology, corporations and cities progress are measured and incentivized to take action on climate change, forests and water security. Visit: Carbon Disclosure Project.

Carbon Footprint: Measure of impact activities have on the environment particularly climate change. Carbon footprint relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating, and transportation, etc. Carbon footprint is a measurement of greenhouse gases produced and has units of tons or kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Carbon Neutral: Companies that achieve net-zero carbon emissions. A company offsets the amount of carbon they produce by removing carbon emissions elsewhere or purchasing carbon credits.

Carbon Offset: Reduction of carbon emissions by purchasing credits or using carbon trading schemes. For example, if a company emits 1 million tons of carbon every year and purchases 1 million tons worth of carbon credits, that company can claim to be carbon neutral without changing its business model.

Carbon Sequestration: Capturing and storing carbon to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration can be natural or manufactured. Planting a tree is a natural form of helping to sequester carbon.

Certification: Third-party confirmation (or the process leading to confirmation) that products, processes or persons have demonstrated specific requirements.

Certifier: Organization which assesses an entity's compliance with a standard or set of criteria, and issues a certificate if deemed successful.

Chain of Custody: Tracing of a product or commodity through a supply chain to determine whether the product meets the criteria of an eco-label and that the certified product is identifiable.

Circular Economy: Practice where products are manufactured, used, and repurposed into produdction for another product. Contast a linear economy where products are manufactured, used, and disposed.

Clean Air Act (CCA): Federal law designed to control air pollution on a national level in the US, with which all emitting entities must comply. The Act also establishes federal standards for 188 hazardous air pollutants and establishes a cap-and-trade program for the emissions that cause acid rain. Visit: Summary of the Clean Air Act and Initial List of Hazardous Air Pollutants with Modifications.

Cleaner Production Assessment (CPA): Methodology to systematically identify and evaluate cleaner (less polluting, less toxic and less wasteful) production opportunities and facilitate their implementation.

Climate Change: Significant change from one climatic condition to another. (See Global Warming).

Climate Resilience: Ability for a socio-ecological system to mitigate climate risk. As opposed to sustainability, which aims to create more climate-resilient systems, climate resilience studies existing systems’ capacity to handle stresses and maintain functionality imposed by climate risk.

Closed-Loop Production: Production system in which any industrial output is capable of being recycled to create another product. A closed-loop economy is the most sustainable form of production and consumption.

Compliance / Conformance Audit: Check to verify whether an entity meets applicable standards of a program.

Conference of the Parties (COP): Annual global climate summits organized by the United Nations where almost every country in the world joins find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way and fight climate change. Visit: Conference of the Parties.

Conformity Assessment: Demonstration that specified requirements for a product, process, system, person or body are fulfilled. This may include any activity concerned with determining directly or indirectly that relevant requirements are fulfilled.

Conscious Capitalism: Free-market economy that mutually benefits both people and the environment.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): Corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model in which a business embraces responsibility for its actions and encourages a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, and stakeholders. (Compare Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)).

Corrective Action Reports: Reports that are issued during certification evaluations or audits that require entities to make specific changes in order to meet criteria.

Cradle-to-Cradle Manufacturing: Similar to Circular Economy, where products are manufactured, used, and repurposed into produdction for another product. Design of products that are essentially waste-free. All materials used are either technical nutrients which are reused in continuous cycles, or biological nutrients which are disposed of into natural environments to decompose into the soil.

Cumulative Energy Requirements Analysis: Process to quantify the primary energy requirement for products and services from a lifecycle perspective.


Deforestation: Occurs when a forested area is converted for non-forest reasons. Deforestation can be particularly harmful to the environment because 1) the converted land usually outputs carbon and 2) with fewer trees, that area is less capable of absorbing carbon dioxide.


Eco-Districts: Collaborative planning approach that focuses on regenerative urban development at the neighborhood scale.

Eco-Efficiency Analysis: Assessment to maximize a production process' economic efficiency while minimizing the impact on the environment.

Eco-Label: Visual communication that indicates environmentally preferable products, services, or companies that meet specific standards. Different types of eco-labels include pass-fail; tiered; multi-attribute; and single attribute.

Ecological Footprint: Total amount of land, food, water, and other resources used by, or total ecological impact of, a person or organization’s subsistence; usually measured in acres or hectares of productive land.

Ecological Restoration: Complex process that artificially restores a damaged ecosystem to as near to its original form as possible.

Environmental Claim: Any statement, assertion, or visual display about the environmental aspects of an organization, product, or process.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): Process of identifying and evaluating consequences of one economic activity on the environment and, when appropriate, mitigating those consequences. An EIA is used as an aid to public decision-making on larger projects.

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS): Document required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for certain actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a tool for decision making. It describes the positive and negative environmental effects of a proposed action, and it usually also lists one or more alternative actions that may be chosen instead of the action described in the EIS.

Environmental Management Systems (EMS): Framework that helps a company achieve its environmental goals through consistent control of its operations. The assumption is that this increased control will improve the environmental performance of the company. The EMS itself does not dictate a level of environmental performance that must be achieved; each company's EMS is tailored to the company's business and goals.

Environmental Performance Indicators: Indicators that describe products' or processes' impacts on living and non-living natural systems, including ecosystems, land, air and water.

Environmental Product Declaration (EPD): Declaration of a product's performance with regard to different environmental parameters during the product’s life cycle. An EPD requires the gathering of quantified environmental data for a product with pre-set categories of parameters (raw material, energy use, etc.). Also includes additional product and company information.

Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA): Examination of technology-related risks that threaten ecosystems, animals and people.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG): Business strategy that encompasses an environmental cause, social cause, and self-governing body in leadership that holds the company accountable. Environmental criteria may include sustainable development, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management and energy efficiency. Social categories may refer to labor wages, workplace health and safety and the protection of human rights. Governance factors might relate to stakeholder engagement, transparency and anti-corruption. (Compare Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)).

Environmentally Preferable Products: Products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment as compared to competing products or services that serve the same purpose. This comparison involves the impacts of a product or service’s raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use, reuse, operation, maintenance, and disposal.

Ethical or Sustainable Investment: Investment in a stock or company that incorporates ESG or CSR principles.


Fairtrade: Practices to ensure a fair partnership between producers (e.g., farmers) and manufacturers (e.g., corporations) to avoid exploitation of producers in less-regulated markets.

First, Second, and Third Party: These terms describe a person or organization's relationship to a product or organization. The first party is the organization, and provides the object. The second party is usually a person or organization that the first organization interacts with. The third party is a person or body that is independent of the first and second party.

First Party Certification: When the producer of an entity claims to meet a criterion or standard without the verification or endorsement of another party.


Global Reporting Initiative (GRI): Independent, international non-profit organization that helps businesses and organizations worldwide account for their impacts by providing them with the tools to communicate those impacts. GRI standards are the world's most widely used sustainability reporting standards, adopted by 73% of the largest 250 global companies and by 68% of a wider sample of 5,800 businesses around the globe.

Global Warming: Increase in the near surface temperature of the Earth. Global warming has occurred in the distant past as the result of natural influences. Now the term is most often used to refer to the warming as a result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Scientists generally agree that the Earth's surface has warmed by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past 140 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently concluded that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases are causing a greater increase in the Earth's surface temperature, and also that increased concentrations of sulfate aerosols have led to relative cooling in some regions, generally over and downwind of heavily industrialized areas. (See Climate Change).

Green Bonds: Issued by organizations to finance environmental and climate projects exclusively. These projects are commonly focused on renewable energy, clean transportation and green buildings.

Green Design: Design of products, services, buildings, or experiences that are sensitive to environmental issues and achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness in terms of energy and materials use.

Green Purchasing: (aka Environmentally Preferable Purchasing) Buying environmentally preferable products or services that have a less or reduced adverse effect on human health and the environment than competing products or services that serve the same purpose, considering life cycle impacts: raw materials acquisition, production, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance or disposal.

Green Remediation: Practice of considering environmental effects of remedy implementation and incorporating options to maximize the net environmental benefit of cleanup actions.

Greenhouse Effect: Warming of the Earth's atmosphere attributed to a buildup of carbon dioxide or other gases. This build-up allows the sun's rays to heat the Earth, while making the infra-red radiation atmosphere opaque to infra-red radiation, thereby preventing a counterbalancing loss of heat.

Greenhouse Gas (GHG): Any chemical or physical substance that is emitted into the air and that the Commissioner of Environmental Protection may reasonably anticipate to cause or contribute to climate change, including, but not limited to, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

Greenwashing: Marketing tactic that inaccurately portrays a product or service as green or eco-friendly to increase sales.


Harmonization: Process whereby national or regional standards and requirements are aligned, including product and manufacturing standards and conformance assessment requirements. Harmonization does not necessarily require that standards be identical in each jurisdiction, but rather that they be consistent or compatible.

Harmonized Standards: Standards approved by different standardizing bodies that establish interchangeability of products, processes, and services, or mutual understanding of test results or information provided according to these standards.


Impact: Adverse or beneficial effect or output of an activity, product, or substance on the environment or human health.

Input-Output Analysis: Economic tool used to measure the impacts of an existing, proposed, or anticipated business operation, decision, or event on the economy.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standards: ISO standards are developed by an international body in order to establish requirements, specifications, guidelines, or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose. Two examples of ISO standards are ISO 14001 for environmental management systems and ISO 50001 for energy management systems. Visit: International Organization for Standardization.

International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB): Created by the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) foundation, the ISSB aims to deliver a comprehensive global baseline of sustainability-related disclosure standards that provide international investors and other capital market participants with quality, reliable information about companies' sustainability-related risks and opportunities (climate and other ESG matters) to help these investors make informed decisions. Visit: International Sustainability Standards Board.


Key Performance Indicator (KPI): Performance measurement that indicate the success of an organization, usually within a particular activity such as sustainability. By identifying and measuring the KPIs through the lens of sustainability, companies can review what they need to work on, alter goals, and ensure that they are meeting these KPIs to continuously improve the company's sustainability.


Landfill-Free: At least 90 percent of waste generated from operations is reused, recycled, or converted to energy.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED): Program sponsored by the United States Green Building Council that creates standards for developing high performance, sustainable buildings. LEED certification indicates sustainability achievement. Visit: United States Green Building Council.

Life Cycle: 1. Consecutive and interlinked stages of a product system, from raw material acquisition or generation of natural resources to final disposal. 2. Life cycle stages include raw material extraction, manufacturing/production, transportation, use, and disposal/recycling.

Life Cycle Assessment: Compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs, and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle. The comprehensive examination of a product or service's environmental aspects and potential impacts throughout its lifetime, including raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing, use, and disposal.

Life Cycle Cost: All costs associated with the defined life cycle of a product, including capital costs, installation costs, operating costs, maintenance costs, and disposal costs. This definition does not include external costs (i.e., those not borne directly by the entity that owns and operates a product/service, such as environmental costs to society at large).

Life Cycle Thinking: Concept that integrates existing consumption and production strategies. Life cycle approaches help avoid shifting problems from one life cycle stage to another, from one geographic area to another and from one environmental medium (e.g., air, water, soil) to another.


Material and Substance Flow Analysis: Mapping of the total use, recycling, and disposal of a specific material or substance in a defined region.

Material Input per Unit Service (MIPS): Weighted cradle to-grave material inputs of a good, as defined per units of services obtainable. This concept can be used to measure the eco-efficiency of a product or service. The calculation takes into account materials required to produce a product or service. The total material input (MI) is divided by the number of service units (S). For example, in the case of a passenger car, the number of service units is the total number of passenger-miles during the whole life span of the vehicle. The lower the material input per mile, the more eco-efficient the vehicle.

Multi-Attribute: Type of eco-label or standard that captures a number of environmental attributes or life-cycle attributes or impacts of a product.


Natural Resources: Materials or substances such as minerals, forests, water, and fertile land that occur in nature and can be used for economic gain.

Non-Financial Information (NFI): Corporation's data that includes environmental effects, political situations, and social responsibilities exclusive of financial information.

Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System (NGFS): Founded at the Paris One Planet Summit in December 2017 with the goal of encouraging organizations within the financial sector to prioritize green and low-carbon investments. The group volunteers their time to share best practices related to strengthening environment and climate risk management in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Visit: Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System.


Open-Loop Recycling: Recycling process in which materials from old products are made into new products in a manner that changes the inherent properties of the materials.

Organic: 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.


Pre- and Post-Market Certification: Two types of conformance checks, where "market" means when the certification is publicized to the market. These two approaches are used within a certification system that implements a strategy for credibility assurance.

Product Stewardship: Product-centered approach to environmental protection that calls on those in the product life cycle (e.g. manufacturers, retailers, users, and disposers) to share responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of products.

Pollution Prevention: Practices that reduce or eliminate the creation of pollutants through increased efficiency in the use of raw materials, energy, water, or other resources, or protection of natural resources by conservation, including reduction in the amount of any hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment prior to recycling, treatment, or disposal.

Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI): World's leading proponent of responsible investment. It works to understand the investment implications of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors and to support its international network of investor signatories in incorporating these factors into their investment and ownership decisions. The PRI encourages investors to use responsible investment to enhance returns and better manage risks, but does not operate for its own profit. The PRI engages with global policymakers but is not associated with any government; it is supported by, but not part of, the United Nations. Visit Principles for Responsible Investment.


Recycling: Process of converting waste into a reusable material or returning a material to a previous state in a cyclic process.

Registration: Third party attestation that systems have demonstrated specified requirements. Such systems include those established for the management of product, process, or service quality and environmental performance. Registration is the first step in the process of certification.

Remanufacturing: Form of product recovering that involves rebuilding, repairing, and/or restoring parts or an instrument to match the same consumer expectations as new machines.

Renewable Resources/Energy: Energy that comes from a source that is not depleted when used. These energy sources include wind, solar, geothermal, and others.


Second Party Certified or Verified: Assessment of an entity against a standard by an organization that has an interest in the entity but is not the producer of the standard.

Supply Chain Management: Information management tool which integrates procurement, operations and logistics from raw materials acquisition to customer satisfaction.

Sustainability: Concept based in the principle that humans depend on the natural environment for survival and well-being, and that humans and nature can exist in productive harmony. Sustainability is the conditions that ensure that human impact on the environment is sufficiently mitigated in pursuit of the protection of natural resources and of future generations' access to water, material, resources, and social and economic requirements.

Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB): Independent standard-setting organization that develops and maintains robust reporting standards that enable businesses around the world to identify, manage and communicate financially material sustainability information to their investors. SASB standards are evidence-based, developed with broad market participation, and are designed to be cost-effective for companies and decision-useful for investors. Visit Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. 17 goals were established, including gender equality, quality education, climate action, zero hunger, affordable and clean energy. The 17 SDGs are integrated, recognizing that action in one area will affect outcomes in others. Visit United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable Manufacturing: Creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, and protects employee, community, and consumer safety.


Third Party Certified or Verified: Entity is assessed against a standard by an independent (third party) organization that is independent from the entity being certified (first party), and from the program that set the standard (second party).

Transparency: Measure of increased accountability and decreased corruption in which a business reports on its ethics and performance results through accessible publication of the business' practices and behavior.

Triple Bottom Line: Phrase describing a company's improved top line financial performance over the long term due to sustainable business practices, including less capital investment and increased revenues. The triple bottom line refers to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.


Voluntary Consensus Standards: Standards developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies, both domestic and international. These standards include provisions requiring that owners of relevant intellectual property have agreed to make that intellectual property available on a non-discriminatory, royalty-free or reasonable royalty basis to all interested parties.

Voluntary Consensus Standards Bodies: Domestic or international organizations that plan, develop, establish, or coordinate voluntary consensus standards using agreed-upon procedures. These bodies are defined by openness, balance of interest, due process, the existence of an appeals process, and a consensus process.


Waste-to-Energy: Recovery process in which waste is incinerated or otherwise turned into steam or electricity, and used to generate heat, light or power through the process of combustion.

Waste-to-Profit: (aka Byproduct Synergy) Process of using one company's waste or byproduct as the input or raw material for another company, thereby increasing business profits and decreasing waste.


Zero Waste: Designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and eliminate pollutant discharges to land, water and air so that all discarded materials are resources for use, reuse, recycling and/or composting.


Sustainable Review
United States Environmental Protection Agency

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We are here to help you reach your sustainability goals with our service and product offerings. We also want to provide other valuable sustainability resources.

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