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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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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: 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: 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.


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.


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.

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