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14 Sustainability Terms You Need to Know

Confused by sustainability jargon? Here are some key terms and definitions to help you get your footing as you work to reduce the footprint of your meetings and events.

It can be hard to talk to stakeholders and suppliers about sustainability when the terms are confusing or poorly defined. Here is a handy primer explaining 14 of the most common sustainability terms to help you have more productive conversations in the future. 

Biodegradable refers to substances or objects that can be broken down by bacteria or other living organisms. Be careful with this term because it doesn’t always mean the product is good for the environment. A biodegradable product can produce harmful materials as it breaks down. For example, some biodegradable plastics produce methane as they decompose in landfills—and it’s a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon.

Compostable refers to organic material that can be placed in compost for rapid breakdown. Some materials require hot composting to destroy harmful pathogens (usually animal products).

Carbon neutral is when carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are fully reduced and offset. This typically means only CO2 is neutralized, not other greenhouse gases.

Downstream solutions are responses to a problem after it has occurred. They focus on treating effects rather than causes. Examples of downstream solutions are recycling, waste management, and reuse of materials. (See “upstream solutions.”)

Emissions are gases produced as a by-product of a chemical reaction. These can be naturally occurring, like methane from cattle, or man-made, from the burning of fossil fuels, for example.   

ESG is shorthand for environmental, social, and governance. It refers to a standard of corporate responsibility that includes addressing climate change (e.g., waste reduction and energy efficiency), the social good of the business (e.g., fair pay, equal employment opportunities, and community contributions), and a rigorous standard of ethics in an organization's business practices.

Greenhouse gases, also called GHGs, absorb infrared radiation in the atmosphere and trap heat. GHGs include, but are not limited to, water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone (O3), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

Greenwashing is misrepresenting actions as being more environmentally sound than they are. While greenwashing can be accidental, it usually refers to presenting a green public image that is misleading. (Read “Are You Being Greenwashed?”)

Net zero means that emissions from an activity are reduced as much as possible, and then offset, resulting in net-zero emissions released into the atmosphere. (For more about net zero in the events industry, please visit the Net-Zero Carbon Events initiative.)

Carbon offsets are actions taken to reduce or remove emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. For example, an organization may invest in reforestation or renewable energy projects to compensate for emissions caused by a conference.

Scope 1, 2, 3 are the classifications created by the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard to describe a company’s GHG emissions. Scope 1 emissions are “direct emissions” from owned or controlled sources (e.g., company-owned delivery trucks). Scope 2 emissions are “indirect emissions” associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling.  Scope 3 emissions are all other indirect emissions that occur in the value chain of a company. In the events sector we are primarily concerned with Scope 3 emissions (e.g., business travel plus waste generated in the operations of venues and vendors).

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without diminishing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability also means that human practices do not result in the permanent damage, alteration, or depletion of the environment, ecosystems, species, or natural resources.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or UNSDGs, are a collection of 17 global goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. From “affordable and clean energy” and “gender equality” to” “climate action” and “zero hunger,” the UN aims to hit its targets by 2030.

Upstream solutions are preventative strategies to avoid a problem. For planners, this might include eliminating plastics and managing food supply to avoid the need for extensive waste management at an event. Upstream solutions require strategic thinking and operational changes but can relieve the cost and time burdens of addressing downstream consequences. 

What event sustainability terms or issues would you like to know more about? Ask the author, Natalie Lowe, CMM, CRL, a sustainable meeting professional with 30 years of experience. Lowe oversees
The Sustainable Events Forum and can be reached at [email protected].  Register for her upcoming webinar, Estimate, Mitigate, Report, Offset: A Four-Step Process for Meeting Sustainability.


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