Glossary of Sustainable Terms

This online guide has been co-created with Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University to help smaller businesses decipher the terminology surrounding decarbonisation.

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Glossary terms beginning with A


    Agriculture contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases due to the clearing of land to cultivate crops or for livestock grazing. Livestock manure, fermentation and fertiliser act as sources of methane and nitrous oxide emissions – all of which contribute to the greenhouse effect.

    Glossary terms beginning with B


      Biodegradable is the ability of components to be broken down (decomposed) within the environment by the action of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and other living organisms. Most things will degrade naturally over time (biodegradable), but some do not break down in the natural environment and cause harm (non-biodegradable).


      Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. It encompasses diversity on many levels, for example, the vast number of species of plants and animals, the genetic diversity within and between these species and the different biomes and ecosystems including rainforest, tundra, and desert alongside microscopic organisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.


      Bioenergy refers to all types of energy derived from the conversion of natural and biological sources (referred as biomass) available on a renewable basis. Bioenergy is the only renewable energy source capable of providing heating and cooling, electricity, and transport fuel.


      Sustainable products designed to mimic nature, such as using feathers in winter coats and duvets, or taking inspiration from termite mounds to construct energy-efficient offices, such as the Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe.

      Glossary terms beginning with C

        Carbon capture and storage (CSS)

        Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves the process of capturing carbon dioxide released due to industrial processes and burning of fossil fuels before it is released into the atmosphere. Captured carbon is transported from where it is produced via ship, tankers, and pipelines and stored deep underground in geological formations. Reaching net zero relies on large-scale CCS activity.

        Carbon emissions

        When fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal are burnt, they release carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere causing the planet to heat up, causing effects on our climate and ecosystems. As carbon is a greenhouse gas, it helps trap heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth to warm up, leading to global warming and climate change. The release of carbon emissions is harmful to the natural environment. Carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases are released because of human activities.

        Carbon footprint

        A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and/or indirectly by a person, organisation, event, or product life cycle. It is the total carbon emissions emitted by business activities, for example, energy use such as heating and electricity, waste, water, transport, and supply chain. Carbon footprint is expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

        Carbon management

        Carbon management is the process of measuring, evaluating, and managing carbon emissions produced directly and/or indirectly from an organisation’s business activities. Carbon management is about taking steps to reduce emissions within a business and extend across supply chain.

        Carbon neutral

        Being carbon neutral means balancing carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere through everyday business activities with the amount absorbed or removed from the atmosphere. Overall, no carbon dioxide emissions are added to the atmosphere. Being carbon neutral is not the same as being net zero (although often it is used interchangeably) – net zero requires reduction of carbon emissions as far as possible before considering offsetting, while, in theory, carbon neutrality could be reached through offsetting alone.

        Carbon offsetting

        Carbon offsetting is a way to compensate for carbon emissions of a business by funding equivalent carbon dioxide savings elsewhere. It is an activity that prevents, reduces, or removes carbon emissions. Planting trees and renewable energy projects are examples of carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a way to take responsibility for unavoidable carbon emissions.

        Circular economy

        A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. It is a sustainable economic model where products and materials are reused or recycled to minimise pollution and waste through product design.

        Climate change

        Climate change refers to long-term shifts in global mean temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts may be natural such as through variations in the solar cycle or forced by human activities (anthropogenic effects). Since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver for climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas.


        26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) which was held in Glasgow, UK between 31st October and 13th November 2021. The COP26 summit brought countries together to accelerate actions towards the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). COP26 discussed the goal of securing global Net Zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change.

        Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

        Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept where businesses integrate social and environmental concerns into their operations and interactions with stakeholders. CSR is generally understood as being the way a company achieves a balance of economic, environmental, and social imperatives (Triple-Bottom-Line) while at the same time addressing the expectations of shareholders and stakeholders.

        Glossary terms beginning with D


          The removal or reduction of carbon emissions output into the atmosphere to reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint and impact on the climate. This is the process by which businesses can reach net zero through reducing, eliminating, and offsetting carbon emissions.


          Deforestation is the permanent removal of trees to make room for something besides forest. It can include clearing the land for farming or livestock, or using the timber for fuel, construction, or manufacturing. World leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030 at COP26.

          Glossary terms beginning with E

            Ecological Footprint

            A measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population, or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management practices. Ecological Footprint is usually measured in global hectares. As trade is global, an individual or country’s footprint includes land or sea from all over the world.


            A community of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment (such as air, water, mineral, soil) interacting as a system.

            Energy management

            The process of tracking and optimising energy consumption to conserve its usage. Energy management is the means to control and reduce energy consumption, for example in buildings. ISO 50001 provides a framework of requirements that help organisations to implement an Energy Management System.

            Environmental Management System

            An Environmental Management System (EMS) is a set of processes and practices that enable an organisation to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operational efficiency. ISO 14001 is the international standard for EMS.

            Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)

            ESG are a set of environmental, social, and governance standards for company operations criteria used by many investors. ESG represents risks and opportunities that will impact a company’s ability to create long-term value including climate change, resource scarcity, diversity and inclusion, health and safety, data security, board diversity, executive pay, and tax transparency.

            Ethical Investment

            Ethical investment is an umbrella term for approaches to investing that consider values as well as returns. The term also covers issues including, but not limited to, climate change, workers’ rights, gender equality, arms, tobacco, and gambling when selecting companies and other assets. It is a principle of selecting investments, such as businesses, based on their social or sustainability credentials.

            Glossary terms beginning with F


              Fairtrade is a system of certification that aims to ensure a set of standards are met in the production and supply of a product or ingredient. For farmers and workers, Fairtrade means workers’ rights, safer working conditions, statutory working hours, and fairer pay.

              Fossil fuels

              Fossil fuels are made from decomposing plants and animals. Fossil fuels are found in the Earth’s crust and contain carbon and hydrogen, which can be burned for energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas are examples of fossil fuels. Coal is a material usually found in sedimentary rock deposits where rock, dead plant and animal matter are piled up in layers. More than 50 percent of a piece of coal’s weight must be from fossilized plants. Oil is originally found as a solid material between layers of sedimentary rock, like shale. This material is heated to produce the thick oil that can be used to make gasoline. Natural gas is usually found in pockets above oil deposits. It can also be found in sedimentary rock layers that don’t contain oil. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane. The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

              Glossary terms beginning with G

                Global warming

                The long-term heating and changing of the Earth’s climate system, primarily due to human activities. Since the 1800s, human activities have driven an increase in global warming, initially due to the Industrial Revolution through to today’s global development.

                Green business

                A business with a minimal negative impact on the environment. If all organisations try to become greener, the upkeep of their businesses will be more sustainable, resilient, and competitive. However, green business does not necessarily mean sustainable and could be green washing.

                Green credentials

                The qualities and actions that show a business believes in the importance of protecting the environment and is taking steps to reduce its environmental impact for sustainability. Green credentials can benefit businesses, according to a recent survey (.PDF, 3,051KB), just over half (52%) of consumers now take a brand’s eco or green credentials into consideration when choosing products.

                Green infrastructure

                Green spaces are areas that are partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation. Green spaces are used for aesthetic, recreational or environmental purposes. In urban settings, green spaces can help reduce the impact of climate change such as through reducing the urban heat island effect. Businesses can support green spaces either through integrating them into existing business sites, funding the development of community green spaces or through designing in new business property developments.

                Green spaces

                Green spaces are areas that are partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation. Green spaces are used for aesthetic, recreational or environmental purposes. In urban settings, green spaces can help reduce the impact of climate change such as through reducing the urban heat island effect. Businesses can support green spaces either through integrating them into existing business sites, funding the development of community green spaces or through designing in new business property developments.

                Greenhouse effect

                The warming of the Earth’s surface and the lowest atmospheric level caused by greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to Earth’s global warming.

                Greenhouse gas emissions

                Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. GHG emissions contribute to the greenhouse effect, adding to climate change. These include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

                Greenhouse gas protocol

                Greenhouse Gas Protocol supplies the world’s most widely used greenhouse gas accounting standards. The standards are designed to provide a framework for businesses, governments, and other entities to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions in ways that support their missions and goals.


                When a company misleads stakeholders into believing they are a sustainable or ethical organisation or promote sustainable and ethical practices as a distraction from negative environmental impacts. Branding something as eco-friendly, green, or sustainable when this is not the case misleads consumers into thinking they are helping the planet by choosing those products.

                Glossary terms beginning with M


                  Microplastics (solid plastic particles less than 5mm in size) have become recognised as a widespread and pervasive environmental pollutant, present globally in air, water, and soil. Microplastics may be either primary (designed and manufactured to be of a small size) or secondary (broken or shed from larger items). Ongoing research aims to understand where and how microplastics form, disperse, and accumulate within the environment alongside the environmental, ecological, and health implications to both wildlife and humans.

                  Glossary terms beginning with N

                    Natural capital

                    Natural capital is the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water, and all living things. Natural capital is any stock or flow of energy and material that produces goods and services. It includes resources such as renewable and non-renewable materials, sinks that absorb, neutralise, or recycle wastes and processes such as climate regulation.

                    Natural resources

                    Natural resources are non-man-made raw materials that can be exploited and processed for production and consumption. They are subject to quantitative depletion by human use. Examples include minerals, energy, soil, water, and biological resources.

                    Net zero

                    Net zero refers to an overall balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. Net zero is reached when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away. The UK government has pledged to become net zero emissions by 2050. A net zero target requires deep reductions in emissions from business organisations.

                    Glossary terms beginning with O


                      The absence of human made chemicals and substances in products that come from plants or animals.

                      Glossary terms beginning with P


                        The introduction of harmful substances into the environment. Pollution can be both natural such as ashes from volcanic eruptions or artificial such as sewage and garbage from factories, car exhaust fumes, or pesticides. Pollutants can negatively affect air, water, and soil quality.

                        Glossary terms beginning with R


                          The process of collecting, recovering, processing, and adding value to materials that are ordinarily thrown away as waste or rubbish by turning them into useful new products.


                          Reforestation involves planting tree seeds or tree seedlings in areas where there was an original forest. Reforestation can occur on land that was historically forested but was subject to another land use. It is encouraged for carbon capture from the atmosphere.

                          Renewable energy

                          A form of energy that is generated from non-depleting and naturally replenishing sources. Renewable energy, often referred to as clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes. For example, solar power from the sun is renewable. The other most popular renewable energy sources include wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass. Energy derived from renewable sources reduces reliance on fossil fuels thereby lowering atmospheric carbon emissions.

                          Glossary terms beginning with S

                            Science based targets

                            Science-based targets provide a clearly defined pathway for companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, helping prevent the worst impacts of climate change and future-proof business growth. Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

                            Scopes of emission

                            Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into three scopes (Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3) by the widely used international corporate accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.

                            Scope 1: Direct emissions occur from sources that are owned or controlled by the company, for example, emissions associated with fuel combustion, company vehicles and fugitive emissions.

                            Scope 2: Indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, heat or steam consumed by the company. Scope 2 emissions physically occur at the facility where electricity is generated.

                            Scope 3: Indirect emissions as a consequence of the activities of the company but occur from sources not owned or controlled by the company. Some examples of Scope 3 are purchased goods and services, business travel, employee commuting, waste disposal, use of sold products and transportation and distribution.

                            Social enterprise

                            A social enterprise is a business with a clear, transparent, social, or environmental purpose set out in an operational framework whose profits are earned through trading and re-invested into fulfilling their mission. They trade to tackle social problems, empower communities, create jobs particularly for marginalised workers, improve the environment, and economy.


                            Sustainability is based on the principle that everything we need for survival depends directly or indirectly on the natural ecosystem. Sustainability is the management and protection of the Earth and its natural resources to support present and future generations. It is a balance of society, economy, and environment in a holistic way. Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve this.

                            Social Development Goals (SDGs)

                            The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or Global Goals, which is a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. This is an urgent call for action by all countries, both developed and developing, in a global partnership.

                            Sustainable supply chain

                            Sustainable supply chain refers to companies’ efforts to consider the environmental and social impact of their products’ journey through the supply chain, from raw materials sourcing to production, storage, delivery, and every transportation link in between. There is a growing need for integrating sustainability practices into supply chain management.

                            Glossary terms beginning with T

                              Triple bottom line

                              Triple bottom line is a business concept that suggests businesses should commit to measuring their environmental and social impact in addition to financial performance. Triple bottom line offers a framework for implementing economic, social, and environmental sustainability in an integrated way. It can be broken down into ‘three Ps’: profit, people, and the planet.

                              Glossary terms beginning with Z

                                Zero carbon

                                Zero carbon means that no carbon emissions are being produced from a product or service. It means no carbon is given off at all. For example, energy sources such as solar and wind do not create carbon emissions when they are used to produce electricity, therefore, we refer to these sources as zero carbon.

                                Zero waste

                                Zero waste involves the conservation of natural resources through lean and responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products including packaging and material use without burning or discharges into water, land, or air. Zero waste reduces both the threat to the environment and human health.

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