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A comprehensive list of all the terminology in the sustainability conversation

Animal Testing

Definition: The experiments carried out on animals through the production of a product, from testing to research, used to determine the safety of that product for human use.

PL explains: It’s important to note that testing on animals is illegal in most countries, but regulatory agencies worldwide do require medicines to be tested on animals before they move on to clinical human trials. That means, if any ingredient used in the pharmaceutical is used in a beauty or skincare product, the ingredient itself was likely tested on animals even if the final product wasn’t.

Animal Welfare

Definition:The way an animal is impacted, both physically and mentally, by human practices.

PL explains: Maintaining animal welfare is important if a good is made with animal by-products, of course, and there are lots of things a business can do to ensure that all animals involved are properly cared for, and even properly killed. Being transparent about this process should be part of a communication strategy for any business that involves


Definition: The technology that digital currencies like Bitcoin are built on that’s often used to track the history of a product.

PL explains: With this technology, every single transaction is tracked, so records are easy to verify. That clear transaction history means goods can be easily tracked, and a consumer can have access to more information about their origin.


Definition: Ability to decompose in a natural way, typically through the actions of an organism.

PL explains: This is a good way to define organic waste and the way it completely breaks down and returns to nature, leaving nothing hazardous behind. This process should take no longer than a year. It’s important to note that biodegradable is not the same as compostable. Not only do compostable materials break down, but they also provide specific nutrients to the area they’re breaking down in, and they require special conditions to do so.


Definition: A combination of the word biological and diversity, this means life in every form, level and combination, including diversity in ecosystems, species and genetics.

PL explains: Biodiversity is incredibly complex because it represents every single thing on the planet and how it is all connected, and thus, humanity can’t survive without it. It also stands for the millions of years of evolution that all living things have gone through, and how they learned to survive through all the states our planet has transitioned through. Supporting biodiversity is vital.

Carbon Footprint

Definition: The amount of carbon dioxide, or any other greenhouse gases, released into the atmosphere via human activity.

PL explains: It is difficult to measure the output of carbon and depending on what tool a business or person uses to calculate their footprint different numbers can result. Reducing the initial output of carbon dioxide a business emits should be the first step in an effort to minimise that carbon footprint.

Carbon Neutral

Definition: When an individual or business removes an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that is equal to what their actions produced.

PL explains: Despite the uptick in businesses claiming to be carbon neutral, that neutrality often cannot be fully realised because everything a business does, from digital activity to shipping goods, increases their carbon footprint. Therefore, working towards neutrality has to be about developing a strategy to reduce emissions from every single operation within a business.

Carbon Offsets

Definition: The process of removing carbon from the atmosphere equal to the amount you released into it.

PL explains: Contributing to reforestation, donating to clean energy providers or participating in any of the projects The Gold Standard works with are good ways to offset emissions. However, there is no quick fix, and many of the offsetting programs companies participate in are flawed. The first step should always be to reduce your emissions.

Circular economy

Definition: A linear economy is based on a ‘make, use, dispose’ life cycle, but a circular economy keeps resources in use for as long as possible, maximising them along the way. Products and materials are then recovered and regenerated, and the cycle continues.

PL explains: A circular economy is the only way forward for businesses that want to last. When a cycle has a hard end and resources have a finite life, that only produces waste, and increases that business’ negative impact on the environment. Linear economies do not have a place in a sustainability strategy.

Clean beauty

Definition: This was coined to describe beauty products that are mindfully produced and free from ingredients that are harmful to people, animals and the planet.

PL explains: Like so many readily used terms that relate to sustainability, ‘clean’ is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Using the word clean is one of the most common forms of greenwashing in the beauty industry.

Closed loop

Definition: The most sustainable economic system, where the inputs used to create something match the outputs at the end of its life.

PL explains: This is a zero-waste system (see definition below) that completely reuses, recycles or composts all materials. In this kind of system, a business reuses the same materials over and over again to create new products. This conserves natural resources and keeps waste out of landfills. There is already a massive abundance of materials in the world, so finding a way to create a closed loop system that doesn’t further contribute to that abundance is key.


Definition: A product that can break down into its natural elements in the right environment, and no toxic substances are produced or left behind once it’s fully broken down.

PL explains: If something isn’t compostable, it could be leaking chemicals while it breaks down. When it does eventually break down, the smallest form non-compostable items often reach is a granulation or a microplastic. Domestic composting usually applies to biodegradable things like food waste and paper products, and different rules and regulations apply based on where you live. Industrial composting happens on a much larger scale, with huge facilities designed to accommodate all kinds of commercial waste, from organics to bioplastics.


Definition: Someone who purchases goods or services for personal use.

PL explains: MWe do not like to define anyone as just a consumer, as each individual person is so much more than what they buy, use or own. For people who shop mindfully, their values and who they are as a person affect the choices they make, and what they choose to consume.

Conscious consumer

Definition: Someone who considers the social, environmental, ecological, and political impact of what they buy and how they buy it.

PL explains: Most consumers today are in one way or another conscious, but the younger generations are the ones who are leading the way. Generation less, for example, is full of purpose-driven shoppers who will only interact with brands whose values align with theirs and will actively call out companies who do not treat the people and the planet with care.

Conscious sourcing

Definition: Fully understanding the origins of every raw material used in a production process and supervising a supply chain to ensure that every step is as sustainable as possible.

PL explains: Sourcing materials consciously is an important part of a circular economy and a sustainable supply chain. A business must be completely aware of where each and every component of their product or service originated and losing touch with that part of the process can be a fatal flaw in a sustainability strategy.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Definition: When a company integrates social and environmental concerns into their business operations.

PL explains: CSR used to be a siloed part of a company’s overall strategy, focused on things like philanthropy, and mostly only affecting upper management and business owners. But now, through years of evolution and a better understanding of the inherent responsibility of businesses to protect people and planet, CSR looks very different for business. It should be woven into every aspect of the business, no longer siloed, affecting everything that business does, top to bottom. It should capture social and environmental sustainability and show that the business has a true purpose as a force for good.


Definition: The processes that results in converting forested lands for non-forest uses, usually through clearcutting.

PL explains: Deforestation is an all too common practice in things like logging and mining. It not only decimates entire ecosystems, but it also is often cited as one of the major causes of the greenhouse effect. This is because, not only are trees that once removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere being taken away, but when the wood from the cleared trees is burned, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


Definition: Products, services, laws and policies, that claim to reduce, minimise or eliminate environmental impact.

PL explains: As with the term ‘clean,’ there are no guidelines to regulate the use of this word, and it is readily misused across several industries. In addition, there is a perception from consumers that an eco-friendly label might mean a product of lesser quality, which is a mindset that brands who truly are employing eco-friendly practices should be trying to shift.

Ethical fashion

Definition: This describes ethical design, production, retail and consumption. It includes things like working conditions, fair trade practices, sustainable production and animal welfare.

PL explains: This is also broad, is open to interpretation and can be misused. It is often applied to all businesses, big and small, that are at various stages of integrating the principles of sustainability into their practices. When a fashion brand claims that they are ethical, it’s important that they have a full explanation of what exactly they are doing to be ethical. At Positive Luxury, we highlight a brand’s sustainability through assigning that brand a bespoke set of Positive Actions. These Actions can both validate that brand and provide consumers with transparency.

Ethical or sustainable investing

Definition: Investing in activities that have either a positive social or environmental impact.

PL explains: This kind of investing is directly related to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) frameworks. The evidence that these factors offer better long-term performance advantages for an investment portfolio is growing, so, more and more stakeholders are interested in the sustainability strategies of companies they are supporting. This is a good thing, because if it continues on its upward trajectory, more companies will realise the importance of meaningful ESG frameworks.


Definition: Focused on the partnership between producers and purchasers of products, fair trade, where fair prices are paid to producers, is an alternative approach to conventional trade.

PL explains: We specifically identify something as fair trade only when it is certified by the Fairtrade Foundation, which requires companies with that certification to pay sustainable prices. Paying a fair trade commodity price helps farmers and workers retain their fair share of the trade, and helps them maintain their own economic safety.

Fast fashion

Definition: A method of producing clothing and accessories as quickly as possible to keep up with always-changing trends.

PL explains: Fast fashion often leads to a cheaper, lower-quality product that contributes to a throwaway culture. The break-neck speed at which fast fashion brands are producing clothing is a huge part of what makes the fashion industry as a whole a massive strain on the planet’s resources. Several fast fashion brands are working to negate this and improve the consumer perception of what they do with donation bins and ‘sustainable’ collections. However, until they revaluate their production cycles and reconsider growth models, their impact will continue to be problematic.

Fur-free and exotics-free

Definition: Not using animal furs or exotic skins in business practices over a period of time.

PL explains: Companies, and fashion brands in particular, often rely on going fur-free, leather-free or exotic-free as an indicator of their sustainability. It is important to note, however, that just because a business is doing that, it does not necessarily make it sustainable. Several synthetic alternatives to both leather and fur are made with materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or PV, which, thanks to its crude oil origins, is a hugely polluting textile.

Gender equality

Definition: When gender has no impact on a person’s access to rights and opportunities, and everyone’s opinions, needs and behaviours are valued equally in a discrimination-free environment.

PL explains: This is an important part of a social sustainability strategy for any business, but it has to happen along with a variety of other policies, like supporting local communities, working with Fair Trade organisations and protecting human rights as a whole.


Definition: This is a marketing tool used to describe the inflation of a positive environmental impact or to make unsubstantiated claims about efforts to protect the environment.

PL explains: As a conscious consumer, it’s important to do your due diligence when a brand claims that it is doing its part to protect the environment. Look for considered information on their website about sustainability and ask questions of the brand if you feel there are holes. Even better, look for brands that are proudly displaying Positive Luxury’s Butterfly Mark. Our trust mark means that brand has been thoroughly vetted and certified for their positive social and environmental impact and is constantly evolving and innovating. We vet each Positive Luxury brand against multiple accreditations and certifications, looking at their sustainability from a holistic perspective.


Definition: A site that facilitates the disposal of waste materials by burying them.

PL explains: Landfills are not designed to break down waste – they are purely a dumping ground for things that could take thousands of years to break down. Waste that ends up in a landfill is tightly packed and then buried underneath a rubber of clay barrier that prevents any liquid from seeping out. Half of everything we throw out ends up in landfills, and the only way to cut back on that is through using biodegradable, compostable and recyclable materials and goods, reusing and repairing things to extend their lives.


Definition: When there are no synthetic compounds or processes in a product’s formulation.

PL explains: The term ‘natural’ is currently unregulated by the FDA, USDA and EU. This means that just one natural ingredient in a formulation can lead to calling something ‘natural.’ Again, this is another term that plays a role in greenwashing, and a consumer should do their research to verify how natural something truly is if that is a priority for them.


Definition: A pesticide is any substance or combination of substances that is used to prevent, destroy or control pests.

PL explains: Not only are pesticides bad for human health, with the potential to cause serious illnesses over an extended period of time, but they are also incredibly harmful to the environment. Runoff from farms that use pesticides can get into waterways and poison those ecosystems. They can also kill earthworms and bees, both of which are vital to biodiversity and the ecosystems they live in.


Definition: A high-polymeric substance that can be either natural or synthetic, excluding rubber.

PL explains: The main problem with plastic is that there is way too much of it, and a lot of it is single use. The world collectively produces about 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, and about half of it is thrown away after just one use. A significant amount of what’s thrown out ends up in oceans, and potentially ingested by wildlife. Right now, only about 9% of plastic produced is recycled, and the plastic that is thrown away can take more than 400 years to break down. And even when it does break down, it doesn’t completely break down. Instead, it turns into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually called microplastics.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Definition: PVC is a type of plastic, specifically a vinyl plastic. It can be clear, flexible or rigid, and it is used to make a variety of products like bottles, packaging and clothing.

PL explains: Sometimes called ‘the poison plastic,’ PVC’s high chlorine content creates toxic pollution. When runoff from it leaks into waterways or is consumed by an animal, that pollution can build up and contaminate food chains. This kind of exposure to PVC can have serious health effects. It is also the most difficult plastic to recycle. Because of all these serious issues, several countries have banned PVC.

Post-consumer material or waste

Definition: A material or product that has served its initially intended purpose and has been thrown away. This includes materials within a distribution chain, as well as waste that is collected and sorted, and pre-consumer waste.

PL explains: When a material is selected for use in any part of a supply chain, its full lifecycle needs to be considered, from how it’s sourced to how it will be used to how it will eventually be disposed of. To limit its potential journey to becoming waste, a material should be either reusable or recyclable.

Producer Responsibility Obligation (PRO)

Definition: A concept aimed at delivering sustainable development by making producers responsible for the end-of-life management of their products. Producer responsibility laws in the UK cover packaging, electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), batteries and end of life vehicles (ELVs).

PL explains: The regulations require businesses to minimise waste arising from packaging, electrical and electronic equipment, batteries and motor vehicles that are categorised as no longer usable and promote their re-use. 


Definition: If something is recyclable, it means it can be broken down into raw materials, sold to manufacturers and turned into something new, and this can happen more than once.

PL explains: It’s important to remember that just because something is recycled, it doesn’t always mean it is recyclable. If something is made from recycled materials, whether or not it can actually be recycled depends on your local regulations. If it can’t be recycled, its lifespan isn’t circular.


Definition: This typically applies to the beauty and food industries, and it refers to packaging that can be used and reused multiple times, thus limiting the waste associated with that product or service.

PL explains: Using refillable, reusable packaging is not enough to make a company sustainable, but it does minimise its environmental impact. Again, this has to be part of a larger, more holistic sustainability strategy.


Definition: In 1980, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a two-term Prime Minister of Norway, said sustainability is about “meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations.”

PL explains: A business can only call itself sustainable when it integrates the principles of sustainability into its culture and all processes. It must be irreversibly woven into the fabric of a business, therefore becoming an integral part of everything that business does. It can then be clearly communicated to consumers and investors in a 100% transparent way.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Definition: A collection of 17 global benchmarks set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to reach by 2030.

PL explains: The SDGs were designed for countries, but they are useful for businesses as frameworks when developing their own sustainability targets. They can help guide a business on gender equality, clean energy, and innovation, and help them minimise their impact and more clearly communicate that to consumers.


Definition: Honesty across all parts of a business, and a willingness to fully communicate with consumers.

PL explains: Being transparent means being 100% truthful about the steps that are being taken to lessen a company’s negative impact on the environment and humanity. While no company can be 100% sustainable, it is important that every company show evidence that they are working towards a positive goal and actively communicate their mission. When done correctly, transparency is the opposite of greenwashing.

Triple bottom line

Definition: This was coined by John Elkington in 1994, and it describes a company’s financial, social and environmental bottom lines. It is designed for companies to value their social and environmental profits and losses along with their financial ones.

PL explains: Adding social and environmental considerations to a company’s bottom line ensures that the company is truly measuring their full cost of doing business. It does not limit their focus to only finances but examines how that company interacts on a social level and how it impacts the environment. Through shifting a focus to all three of the parts of a triple bottom line, a company will have the tools it needs to reach imperative sustainability goals.


Definition: The process of turning production by-products, waste materials and otherwise unwanted items into new materials. 

PL explains: Upcycling is something both businesses and consumers can do, and it is an excellent antidote to the throwaway culture that permeates current consumer trends. Finding a new way to use a product or a raw material prolongs its life and minimises its negative environmental impact.

Value chain

Definition: Activities a business performs to produce a valuable product or deliver a service.

PL explains: A value chain is similar to a supply chain, but instead of focusing on the movement of materials, it focuses on the points that generate value for a business. By analysing a value chain, you can see how efficiently a company is operating. Not only can this increase a company’s competitive advantage, but it can also result in a more stable sustainability strategy. Using recyclable materials, generating less waste and limiting the use of non-renewable energy sources can all strengthen a value chain, while minimising the impact on the environment


Definition: A person who does not consume or use anything that is an animal product or by-product, or a good or service that is free from animal products and by-products.

PL explains: If a brand is vegan, this does not mean it’s sustainable. As previously mentioned in the fur-free definition, using synthetics instead of animal skins could actually be increasing that brand’s negative environmental impact.

Vegan leather

Definition: A material that looks and feels like leather, typically made with cork, bark cloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, paper, PVC, or polyurethane.

PL explains: Materials like PVC, PV and polyurethane are synthetic with problematic origins. They are also difficult to recycle and do not biodegrade. Their smallest form is granulation, and it can take decades to get to that form alone.


Definition: A material that is produced in a domestic setting or by a commercial, industrial and municipal organisation that can’t be recycled or used for any other purpose.

PL explains: Producing no waste is an ideal situation, but it is not often possible given the way most supply chains work and the way most households operate. But there are so many ways to limit your output of waste, whether you’re an individual or a corporation. Taking steps to get your waste output as close to zero as possible is an important element of a sustainability strategy.

Zero waste

Definition: Eliminating the output of waste by turning into another resource or ensuring that production by-products are reused or recycled.

PL explains: Aiming to send nothing to a landfill is a great plan, through reducing what is used and reusing as much as possible, recycling when we can and composting the rest. But, along with doing that, the make-use-dispose system needs to be completely redefined. That linear system is not sustainable and moving toward zero waste is part of the transition to a circular economy where nothing is thrown away and the system allows everything to be reused.


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