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A small business guide to sustainable buzzwords

Greenwashing. Eco-certified. Carbon offsets.

These are the types of sustainability terms we’re hearing a lot from “green” companies and environmental campaigns. You might not totally understand what they mean (what’s the difference between recyclable and reusable anyway?). And that’s okay—the language around the sustainability movement is evolving quickly, and it can be hard to keep up.

But if you’re taking action to become a more sustainable business, you want to avoid using a term incorrectly or confuse your customers with eco-terminology. This can come off as disingenuous or uninformed. When in doubt, it’s best to stick to simple, clear concepts rather than packing in sustainability jargon. That being said, there are a few terms you should know.


Biodegradable materials, like food waste and paper, are broken down naturally, without any processing, in a way that is not harmful to the earth.


Bioplastics are produced from renewable biomass (organic matter used as fuel) sources like vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, sawdust, and more. Bioplastics can be broken down completely with the help of microorganisms.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by a particular person, group, product, and so on. Your business’s carbon footprint is the sum of many parts, including energy consumption, transportation, production, and more.

Carbon offsets

A carbon offset represents a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Carbon offset companies allow individuals and businesses to invest in environmental projects to balance out their own carbon footprint. This might include planting trees or investing in green energy technologies.

Carbon neutral

Many products, companies, and individuals strive to be carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality is achieved when carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide absorption are equal, leading to net neutral emissions. Purchasing carbon offsets is one way to become carbon neutral.

Climate change

Climate change refers to large-scale shifts in weather patterns as a result of global warming driven by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.


Compostable material is similar to biodegradable material—both will break down over time in a way that is not harmful to the planet. However, compostable material breaks down to create more nutrient-rich soil. Compostable material is most often made of things that decay naturally in nature, like plants, nuts, and other organic matter.

Energy efficient

Energy efficient implies that the product in question uses less energy to provide power relative to similar products. For example, an energy-efficient LED lightbulb requires less energy than a standard incandescent bulb to produce light.

Greenhouse gas

The primary greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gases absorb and emit radiant energy, trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing a greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide represents 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily emitted through human activities.


Beware of greenwashing —a marketing strategy intended to make consumers believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. Greenwashing can happen unintentionally if you don’t entirely understand how your sustainability efforts are—or aren’t—making an impact.


Organic materials (like produce) are grown without the use of chemically formulated materials, such as synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers. An organic label also indicates that the material is not genetically modified.


Pollution refers to the introduction of harmful contaminants, or pollutants, into the natural environment. Pollutants can be natural, such as volcanic ash, or created by human activity, like trash. Pollutants damage the quality of the air, water, and land.


Recyclable materials can be repurposed—rather than being thrown out as waste, they can be reused or broken down and converted into new products. The most common recyclable materials include paper, cardboard, glass, and some plastics.

Renewable energy/green energy

Renewable energy comes from naturally replenishing sources, like the sun. Solar power, wind power, geothermal energy, and hydroelectric power are examples of renewable or “green” energy.


If something is reusable, it can be—you guessed it—reused. Reusable products are intended to be used again and again without being repurposed or converted into a new product. Examples include reusable grocery bags, glass water bottles, metal straws, and more.


Sustainability is the idea that a process or practice will maintain ecological balance without depleting natural resources. It means meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It’s the understanding that our resources are finite. For example, clean drinking water is a finite resource—unsustainable water management can lead to a dangerous water shortage. But sustainable water solutions , like water recycling and rainwater harvesting, can help.

Triple bottom line

The triple bottom line is a business concept that claims businesses should commit to measuring their social and environmental impact in addition to financial performance. Rather than focusing solely on profits (or “the bottom line”), the triple bottom line includes three Ps: profits, people, and the planet.


Upcycling is the process of recycling or repurposing an item in such a way that the result is of higher value than the original item. For example, repurposing plastic bottles that would otherwise be considered waste into shoes and clothing.

Zero waste

Zero waste is just that—the elimination of all waste. This means nothing ends up in a landfill, the air, or the ocean. A company claiming “zero waste” reuses as much as possible and recycles or composts the rest.

Green is more than just a color

Sustainability is quickly becoming the standard for small businesses. Today’s consumers care about supporting businesses that care about the environment. While these sustainability terms might feel like buzzwords, they represent a promise to your customers that you care about protecting their futures and the planet. Use these words with care, and remember, green is more than just a color (or a buzzword, for that matter). It’s a commitment.

Start your journey to net zero emissions today.

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