When it comes to the subject of sustainability, many commonly used terms are easily confused. Our sustainability experts have compiled this quick guide to clarify several words that are used—and misused—in everyday conversations.
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Sustainability vs. CSR
Sustainability is a holistic approach encompassing financial, social, and environmental dimensions. Only when all aspects are considered together can we find lasting prosperity in a world of finite resources.
CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is a framework or strategy used by companies to make and measure progress in becoming more sustainable. A complete CSR plan addresses all three areas of sustainability.
Raw Materials vs. Resources
Raw materials are the ingredients that make up or are used to produce the final product.
Resources include raw materials, plus energy sources, water, and air, used, or affected by production of the final product.
Bio-based (or Bio-sourced) vs. Renewable vs. Sustainable
Bio-based (or bio-sourced) materials come from biomass, i.e. crops, wood, algae, or animals. All bio-based materials are renewable. Not all bio-based materials are plant-based.
Renewable means capable of being replenished in a short period of time. The word can be used to describe both materials and energy. Renewable sources of energy include sun, wind, and waves. Renewable materials includes bio-based materials.
Sustainable (or sustainably sourced) materials provide environmental, but also social and economic benefits and all these aspects have been factored in the choice of the supplier. Not all bio-based materials can be considered sustainable.
Recycled vs. Recyclable
Recycled products are made from materials that have been recycled.
Recyclable products are ones that can be broken down into reusable materials after use.
Bio-based vs. Biodegradable
Bio-based refers to where the raw materials originate. Some, but not all, bio-based materials will biodegrade.
Biodegradable refers to how the finished product will break down after being discarded. (See below for more details.) Some biodegradable materials are not bio-based.
Degradable vs. Biodegradable vs. Compostable
Degradable refers to any material that breaks down in one way or another. It can break down into small pieces, into other components, with UV light or heat. It is a very generic word, with no real significance in discussions of sustainability.
Biodegradable specifically refers to any material that can be broken down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass, by microorganisms or other living things. However, anything can be broken down given enough time. That’s why claims should include the timeframe and conditions of biodegradability (in soil, in water, or in marine environment for example). The term does not indicate whether or not the end materials are biological or helpful to the environment.
Compostable specifically refers to organic materials that break down to small pieces, are biodegradable, and have no adverse effect on soil health. All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are fit for composting.
Zero Emissions vs. Net Zero Emissions
Zero Emissions is sometimes used to describe a process or a machine that supposedly does not create greenhouse gases (zero emission engine). While it may be true that an electric car does not emit exhaust gases, somewhere along the lifecycle of this machine and its power there were or will be emissions of greenhouse gases, so the concept of “zero emissions” is misleading. We should rather use the concept of “net zero emissions.”
Net Zero Emissions means that any greenhouse gasses that are created by an action, a machine, a process, are accurately calculated, and then are compensated through human action, such as planting trees. Compensation requires either capturing or avoiding the emission of the same amount of greenhouse gases that the original action created. By doing this, and only at the specific perimeter considered, we reach what is called Carbon Neutrality.
To further expand your knowledge of terms commonly used in discussions of sustainability, bookmark our Sustainability Glossary.
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