’s green glossary is an ever-growing list of constantly updated key sustainable business terms for sustainability professionals (so don’t mind the date and time stamp above).

If you feel that we’re missing something, we appreciate you letting us know by adding it as a comment at the bottom.


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Ecological rucksack – a term used by Bob Willard in The Sustainability Advantage to describe the amount of “stuff” that goes into making a product, but that is the unseen elements that your product is towing along behind it. For instance, Willard cites studies that show a basic wedding ring took so much metal, energy, water, and other inputs to make that it basically carries around an ecological rucksack 100,000 times its size. For each ounce of gold ring, then, there are 100,000 ounces of metals used, coal burned, water used, etc. that were required to make the ring.

Ecology – the study of biological systems and their complex interactions with the physical and chemical elements around them. Somehow, this has given rise to terms like “eco-friendly”, which don’t really make sense, but for some reason have become shorthand for terms like environmentally friendly. Students wishing to understand sustainability would do well to understand the fundamentals of ecology, but a career in ecology is not a position that allows for advocacy as sustainability does.

Ecotourism – a field of tourism that showcases nature and educates guests about sustainability and natural resources in a non-consumptive way. Examples include snorkeling, a hiking trip, a bike tour, cultural excursions, etc. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. The principles of ecotourism are minimizing impact, building environmental awareness, providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts, direct financial benefits for conservation and local people, and raising sensitivity to governments’ political, environmental, and social climate.

Emissions – the waste associated with production or processes.

Energy audit – some companies and public utilities conduct energy audits in homes and commercial buildings to help identify ways to save energy, either through adding insulation or sealing gaps, or through new appliances or other retrofits.

Energy efficiency – Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit in sustainability, energy efficiency measures can help save homeowners and companies money on their utilities while cutting their emissions, without affecting performance.

Environmental Justice – a movement that aims to correct injustices related to the pollution and public health problems caused by one party, and imposed on another. Most often, it’s minority and poor groups that are negatively affected, while the economic development benefits the rich. A good example is a power plant located in a poor neighborhood, providing power and most of the jobs to a rich suburb, while keeping the pollution in the poor areas.

Environmentally preferable – When describing a product or service, it is hard to sometimes justifiably use the term “environmentally friendly” when that product or service simply minimizes the damage done to the environment. Instead, if this product or service represents a substantial improvement over another of its kind, it’s referred to as environmentally preferable.

Externality – Quite simply the most important term in all of sustainability. An externality is a cost that should realistically be borne by the party that creates it, but for one reason or another is not. When a factory pollutes the water in a local area because the regulations for water quality are weak, and the citizens in that area develop cancer, the cost is borne by the citizens and taxpayers when it should be realistically borne by the company that produced the pollution. Pollution is just one example, but perhaps the most obvious. Other externalities include childhood obesity & diabetes, antibiotic resistant bacteria, child labor, global warming, climate change, asthma, e-waste, litter, end of life disposal, and many other environmental and public health epidemics. Once you understand the concept of an externality, the business case for sustainability becomes much more clear. After all, if coal companies had to pay for all the fish in the world that are not fit for consumption because they’ve bioaccumulated mercury (byproduct of coal combustion), coal power would be more expensive than wind energy.

e-waste – shorthand for electronic waste, e-waste is a huge challenge for governments and peoples around the world. The main problem is that electronics tend to have high levels of heavy metals and other unsafe contaminants, and the market for recycling electronics at the end of their useful life is very limited. Therefore, much of it ends up getting burned or landfilled, and the heavy metals leach out into drinking water or otherwise become a general pollutant that causes illness and disease in humans and wildlife.


Have a suggestion for a term, organization or concept to add to our glossary? Send it along to info [at]

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About The Author

Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on

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