Ultimate guide to understanding key sustainability terms.

Sustainability jargon can be complicated. Use our handy guide to help you better navigate the world of sustainable and circular economics. 

We know that the world of sustainability and the circular economy can be quite complicated at first. With such a wide variety of complex terms and seemingly cryptic jargon often used without much context for the non-specialist… beginning to unpack and fully understand the world of sustainable economics and environmentalism can be tricky.

That’s why we’ve developed this ultimate simplified guide for understanding all things to do with sustainability, circular design, and the product economy. Whether you’re new to this fascinating world—or simply need a refresher on a few terms—you’ve reached the right place!

Here’s our handy guide to understanding some of the most common sustainability terms and concepts.


This umbrella term sustainability refers to preserving and improving social, economic, and environmental stability.

  • Social sustainability is about improving social equality and preserving future generations. It incorporates sustainable development goals that address social improvement for all.
  • Economic sustainability is about improving the standard of living and maintaining high and stable levels of economic growth, without risking harm to ecological and human systems.
  • Environmental sustainability is about ensuring that the needs of the population are met without compromising the needs of future generations and ecological systems.

A linear economy follows a one-way process of ‘take-make-waste’. The traditional linear economic model takes raw materials and transforms them into products to be sold to consumers. Products are then used and discarded as waste, which culminates in landfill.

The linear economy results in the overproduction of greenhouse gases and in the wasting of valuable materials, causing significant problems on our planet with finite resources.


Simply put, a circular economy is one that takes less and regenerates more. It eliminates wastes by recirculating products and materials… and by shifting away from resource extraction and towards resource regeneration.

On a much larger scale, the circular economy presents a way to transform our system by mimicking the Earth’s natural cycles. It is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.

Through better design, the circular economy aims to better use resources, close the loop of resource flows by recovering as much as possible, and prevent waste and pollution from occurring. 


The term ‘waste hierarchy’ refers to a widely recognised framework which ranks waste management options from most preferrable to least preferrable.

  1. Prevent: aims to avoid waste generation in the first instance through the re-design of products and systems.
  2. Reduce: aims to minimise waste generation by reducing use of materials and consumption.
  3. Reuse: provides products and materials with a second life or use before disposal.
  4. Recycle: refers to turning something old and beyond use into something new and useful.
  5. Recover: refers to recovering the energy from materials and re-entering this back into the economic system.
  6. Dispose: refers to the safe treatment and disposal of materials that cannot be recycled or recovered. 

A commonly used term, net zero (or net-zero) refers to achieving a balance between the amount of all greenhouse gases produced and the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere. 

Net zero is an important measure by which we can tackle climate change, by tracking and reducing emissions that contribute to global warming. A company’s net zero commitment typically involves strategic greenhouse gas emission reduction initiatives, the implementation of renewable energy solutions and then carbon offsetting. 


Carbon neutral refers to a policy of not increasing carbon emissions and of achieving carbon reduction through offsets. Most companies begin the process of achieving carbon neutrality by cutting CO2 emissions and then investing in carbon offset programs (for example, reforestation).

Similar but not interchangeable with net zero, carbon neutrality specifically refers to the amount of carbon being removed from the atmosphere being equal to the carbon emitted. Simply put, it’s a narrower term for what happens within net zero, specifically focussing on the removal of carbon.


This is an environmental management strategy that means whoever is designing, producing, selling, or using a product is responsible for minimising that product’s total environmental impact across all stages of its lifecycle.

This product responsibility, or stewardship, begins before and when the product is being made, as well as beyond the end of its ‘useful’ life, after disposal. 


Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a strategy that places the shared responsibility for end-of-life product management on producers and other entities involved in the production chain—rather than the general public (consumers).

EPR places primary responsibility on the producer, or brand owner, and encourages product design changes that minimise negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage of a product’s lifecycle. 


Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) is a framework for organisations that encourages companies to act responsibly across these three essential pillars. These three standards ultimately measure sustainability and are often used by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments.

ESG goals take into account the fact that sustainability encompasses all three areas: environment (preserving the natural world), social (supporting gender, diversity, equity, and inclusion movements), and governance (from stakeholder concerns to corporate structure to employee relations and compensation).