Glossary of sustainability

Bamboozled by sustainability jargon? Cut through the mumbo jumbo with our glossary of the latest sustainability buzzwords.

Active transport

Getting yourself from A to B by walking or cycling. Also includes other physical activities like running, skateboarding and scooting.


Able to break down and blend back in with the earth, given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi or bacteria. Ideally, but not always, no toxins are left behind.


A form of design that seeks sustainable solutions by mimicking nature. The goal is to create products and services that are well adapted to life on Earth over the long-term.

Blue economy

Economic activities that create sustainable wealth from the world’s oceans and coasts.

Business model

The underlying structure of how a company creates, delivers and captures value. In its most simplistic form, it is how a business makes money.

Business resilience

The ability of an organisation to adapt in a changing environment to enable it to achieve its objectives and prosper.

Business transformation

Making bold and fundamental changes to the way business operates, rather than making incremental step changes to the status quo.

Carbon credit

A generic term for any tradable certificate or permit deemed to allow a company, within an emissions trading scheme, to emit one tonne of CO2 equivalent. This covers CO2 or any of the other greenhouse gases.

Carbon emissions

A term often used in place of greenhouse gas emissions (see below).

Carbon footprint

Total emissions of greenhouse gases (in carbon equivalent) for an activity or organisation over a given period of time.

Carbon neutral

Balancing greenhouse gas emissions with an equivalent amount of independently verified carbon offsets. Also referred to as net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon offsetting

Any activity deemed to reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases by purchasing verified carbon credits (also known as offsets) through emissions reduction projects or carbon trading schemes.

Carbon positive

Any activity deemed to reduce and/or offset more emissions than it produces.

Carbon sequestration

The capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example by planting trees.

Circular economy

An economy where waste and pollution are designed out, products and materials are kept in use and natural systems are regenerated.

Climate action

Activities to tackle climate change and its impacts, usually by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change

A long-term shift in global weather patterns or average temperatures. Scientific research shows that, compared with climate change patterns throughout Earth’s history, the rate of temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution is extremely high. Rising temperatures can lead to extreme weather such as droughts, sea level rises and retreating glaciers.

Collective Impact

Cross-sector coordination to bring about large-scale change.


Given the right conditions, a material that breaks down completely into non-toxic components that can support plant growth.

Conscious capitalism

A form of capitalism that seeks to benefit people and the environment.

Conscious consumerism

Consumers voting with their wallet – purchasing products and services that are produced responsibly.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

A management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations.

Crowd funding

The joint effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually online, to support a wide variety of activities including start-up company funding, disaster relief and campaigns.

Doughnut economics

An economic theory, represented by a doughnut-shaped diagram, for operating within the boundaries of social and environmental sustainability.

Ecological or nature restoration

Assisting an ecosystem to recover to a previous, more biodiverse condition.

Ecological or nature regeneration

Improving ecological health and biodiversity by enabling, supporting and enhancing natural processes.

Electric vehicle

A vehicle that runs on electricity powered by a battery that can be plugged in to recharge. A vehicle that uses a battery and conventional engine is called a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

A tool that puts a price on emissions of greenhouse gases with the aim of reducing them. All sectors of Aotearoa New Zealand’s economy, apart from agriculture, pay for their emissions through the NZ ETS. A select group of large businesses are required to buy units to cover their emissions. These businesses pass on these costs to their customers. The ETS provides an incentive to reduce emissions. It is one of the government’s main tools to meet our emissions target under the Paris Agreement.


Discarded electronic appliances such as mobile phones, computers, and televisions.

Environmental management systems

A set of processes and practices that enable an organisation to reduce its environmental impacts.  The most commonly used framework is the one developed by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) for the ISO 14001 standard.

Ethical investment

The avoidance of investment in activities considered unethical and unsustainable, in favour of those that are either considered less harmful, benign or socially and environmentally positive.

Fair trade

An alternative approach to conventional trade, based on a partnership between producers and consumers, to ensure that farmers and workers get a fair share of the benefits of trade.

Global warming

An increase in the world’s average temperature due to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases

Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour.


Activities, usually marketing, intended to make people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

Hybrid vehicle

A vehicle primarily powered by a conventional internal combustion engine, but supplemented with power from regenerative braking.

Integrated reporting

An approach to corporate reporting that integrates financial information and non-financial (e.g. sustainability) information into a single document to show how a company is performing.

Life cycle assessment (LCA)

The process of attempting to measure the environmental impacts of a product or service throughout its existence.


A source of financial services for individuals or small businesses lacking access to traditional banking services. It can be a sustainable means of poverty alleviation by empowering entrepreneurs to build businesses, support their families and transform their communities.


Small pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in length, found on land and water as a result of plastic pollution.

Modern slavery

An umbrella term for extreme forms of exploitation like human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices, such as servitude, forced labour, forced marriage, the sale and exploitation of children, and debt bondage.

Nature-based solutions

Solutions that are inspired and supported by nature and that may also offer environmental, economic and social benefits, while increasing resilience.

Natural capital

The world’s stock of natural ‘assets’, including geology, soil, air, water and all living things.

Paris Agreement

A legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by more than 190 countries in 2015. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2°, preferably to 1.5° Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Product stewardship

A concept where businesses take responsibility for the environmental impact of the products they make, sell or buy. This involves all stages of the product’s life cycle, including end-of-life management.


Processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away and turning them into reusable material. In closed loop recycling materials from a product are recycled to make the same, or a similar, product without significant degradation or waste. This can be done repeatedly. In open loop recycling materials from a product are used to make a different type of product.


A product or material that can be collected, processed and manufactured into a new product.


Rebuilding a product to its original specifications using a combination of reused, repaired and new parts.

Renewable energy

Energy that comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished like wind, water and sunlight.

Science-based targets

Targets for reducing emissions 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.

Shared value

A management principle that seeks market opportunities for business to solve social problems. ‘Creating Shared Value’ was first introduced in the Harvard Business Review in 2011, based on the principle that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent.

Sharing economy

A system whereby consumers share access to products or services, rather than having individual ownership. Examples include Airbnb, which matches people who have a place or space to rent with people looking for a place to stay.

Social capital

The collective value of all social networks; the links and shared values in society that enable individuals and groups to work together.

Social enterprise

Businesses that operate to tackle social problems, improve communities or the environment. They reinvest their profits back into the business or community.

Supply chain

A network between a company and its suppliers to produce and distribute a specific product to the final buyer.


The million-dollar definition!  We believe sustainability is a balance of society, economy and environment for long-term resilience.

Sustainable business

A business that is economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally conscious.

Sustainable design

Designing products, services and the built environment in keeping with principles of sustainability.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

A collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. They were adopted by the UN in 2015.

Sustainable procurement

Decisions when buying products and services that include social and environmental factors along with price and quality.

Systems thinking

An approach to problem-solving that views ‘problems’ as part of a wider, dynamic system. It is the process of understanding how things influence one another as part of a whole.

Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)

An international organisation created in 2015 to develop consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies, banks, and investors in providing information to stakeholders. In 2021 New Zealand was the first country in the world to adopt reporting requirements based on the TCFD framework. The Bill will make climate-related disclosures mandatory for around 200 organisations in the financial and insurance sectors.

Triple bottom line

A phrase first coined by John Elkington in 1994, describing the separate but interdependent financial, social and environmental ‘bottom lines’ of companies.

Value chain

A business model that describes the full range of activities needed to create a product or service.

Waste stream

The complete flow of a specific type of waste from domestic or industrial areas through to recovery, recycling or disposal.

Zero carbon

A term sometimes used to describe a product or service that creates no CO2 or greenhouse gas emissions during production and/or operation.

Zero waste

A target of sending no waste for disposal via landfill or burning.