Sustainability buzzword guide: part I

A lot of bloggers at one point or another have made a post about something “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, “cruelty-free” or something indicating they are a friend to the environment and animals. But what does it mean, exactly?

As someone who got their degrees in conservation, I have been in on environmental discourse since my teens, so a lot of these terms are second nature to me. But I want to provide a quick guide for the layperson of what these words mean and how to be skeptical of buzzwords you see on blog posts and in the real world.

Climate change vs. global warming

Real quickly, let’s define the issue that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind: global warming.

Climate change occurs naturally on Earth has been around since the beginning of time. Hell, we’ve been through five ice ages. However, evidence points to a lot of climate activities are heavily influenced by human activities including rising sea levels, accelerating ice melt and increase in storm intensities. Another element of the changing climate is the unprecedented increase in global warming. Greenhouse gases occur naturally, but since the Industrial Revolution an excess amount has also been produced by humans, causing an unnatural rise in temperatures.

Conservation vs. sustainability

First and foremost, I want to explain what I’ve studied to provide any disclaimer of my knowledge and bias. I did my degrees in conservation but also took a few sustainability classes to get my toes wet. I much prefer the hands-on and scientific approach of conservation but appreciate the importance of economically and politically literate people in environmental policy.

In my eyes, sustainability is all about being mindful of the use of a resource so that it can be preserved for future generations. Sustainability includes aspects of economics, politics and sociology when considering environmental ethics.

Conservation and sustainability are often used interchangeably, which isn’t completely wrong. Conservation, basically defined as environmental management, is an essential part of sustainability… after all, there will be nothing to sustain if you don’t use the resource wisely in the first place. In the diagram above, think of conservation as everything in the “planet” sphere, although a lot of conservationists are also privy on ecomonic and social issues. Typically, conservationists choose a more (you guessed it) conservative policy for environmental use while sustainability is all about “smart” use.


While sustainability initiatives all well and good, be aware of greenwashing: false claims made by companies to convince consumers that they are more eco-friendly than they actually are. One example was Starbucks nixing plastic straws (I could write a whole post on plastics straws themselves, but in the meantime check out how alternatives aren’t ideal for disabled people with this short but informational video by Jessica Kellgran-Fozard) and replacing them with lids that have the same amount of plastic if not more than the old straw-lid combination and advertising it as more eco-friendly, feeding off the public anti-straw craze that is a completely disproportionate to its near negligible environmental effects. If you really want to be eco-friendly, buy your own tumbler or mug to bring in lieu of a disposable cup.

Biodegradable vs. compostable

On a similar note, other coffee shops are moving towards “biodegradable” cups. Other traditionally single-use products that have biodegradable counterparts on the market include trash bags, cutlery, water bottles and even phone cases (I had a Pela case and it was amazing!). However, the term “biodegradable” can be misleading: it simply means that tit can break down into smaller pieces, but may never break down entirely and leave behind toxins. The term “biodegradable” is one greenwashing strategy: if a company claims something is “biodegradable” without an expiration date, it may be indefinite. On the other hand, compostable products can be completely consumed into the soil in a timely manner free of toxins. A lot of biodegradable products have compostable counterparts, but may be more expensive and difficult to find. The graphic below has more information and this post is another great guide to knowing the difference and reliable sources to confirm such products.

Image source: Ecospace

With my old phone, I had the popular Pela case, the biodegradable phone case, and I will admit that I wasn’t 100% of the definition of biodegradable at the time of purchase, I just wanted to be more eco-friendly. Luckily, the company is very transparent about the product composition, manufacturing and break-down time. If you’re looking for a new phone case, I recommend checking out their FAQ to see if their production is something you can get behind!

I will publish a second post soon all about more buzzword items of an issue very near and dear to my heart: food systems. All about veganism, organic food, GMOs and other terms and how to understand what they really mean.

Photo by Luca Bravo.







  1. Charlene
    March 13, 2020 / 6:29 pm

    Hi Rachel, When you get off the ship, you should consider teaching! You would be great at it.


  2. March 15, 2020 / 1:41 pm

    Very informative. I learned a lot!!

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