Glossary of sustainability terms

Navigating the alphabet soup of sustainability, ESG and CSR can be tricky. Therefore this list of much-used terms and topics has been compiled to support your path to taking action on business sustainability.

We would also love to hear your needs for decoding sustainability, – reach out any time on info(at) and tell us how we can help you understand the context.

Accountability is a core part of business sustainability.

Accountability for a business is about transparent communication of social & environmental goals and the linked actions in a verifiable manner. Good accountability seeks to enhance trust among all stakeholders through communicating and reporting consistent, comparable, and measurable progress of impacts and targets.

When companies start their sustainability journey, the baseline is one of the first big steps to map, review and measure the consumption and impact on the environment and society around the business.

The first year’s baseline is then expanded over time with progress and capturing deeper details of a variety of metrics.

The biological diversity of flora and fauna species on Earth, a complex web of life that underpins the natural life processes on the planet. Human-caused environmental damage reduces biodiversity, and creating a healthy, sustainable society requires increasing biodiversity.

is the imitation of natural biological designs or processes in engineering or invention.

The altering of the planet’s climate due to an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity. Effects of climate change include rising temperatures, leading to increased extreme weather such as heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms, and resulting in reduced water and food security and social stability.

Climate change is an accumulated impact over time, and the effects are rolling out in a variety of timeframes and interconnected factors that can positively or negatively create feedback loops and multiplication effects.

The climate justice concept explores a just division, fair sharing, and equitable distribution of the burdens of climate change and its mitigation and responsibilities to deal with climate change. It is a discourse of exploring and the highly disproportionate impacts of climate change, meaning that the nations who are emitting the most GHG, are not the nations and populations who will feel the effects of the climatic changes most.

To be climate literate, means you understand your impact and influence on the interconnected global climate and climate’s influence on you and society.

Accelerating climate literacy is one of The Umbrella Institute‘s core philosophies to ensure timely & relevant business climate action is taken.

An annual meeting of the decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which encourage intergovernmental policy on climate change.

The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, was the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference.

It was held in Madrid, Spain, from 2 to 13 December 2019 under the presidency of the Chilean government.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, was the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, from 31 October to 13 November 2021.

The president of the conference was UK cabinet minister Alok Sharma.


Glasgow Climate Pact 

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, COP27, was the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, held from November 6 until November 20, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

COP28 is to be held in the United Arab Emirates in November 2023.
COP28 is the first stake taking COP since COP21 when the Paris Agreement, limiting the global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was confirmed by 196 countries.

The process of harvesting forests for natural resources or to clear land for agriculture or construction. Deforestation that occurs faster than forests are able to recover causes environmental damage such as loss of biodiversity and climate change.

The process in which a company submits requested information relating to the impact their business activities have on environmental areas such as climate change, deforestation and water security. Capital markets and purchasing organizations use data submitted through the disclosure process to make informed decisions.

the production and discharge of something, especially gases or radiation.

For particulars on greenhouse gas emissions, see GHG

Food security is defined when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, at 1996 World Food Summit.

There are 4 dimensions of food security:

  • Physical availability of food
  • Economic and physical access to food.
  • Food utilization: Utilization is commonly understood as the way the body makes the most of various nutrients in the food. Sufficient energy and nutrient intake by individuals are the result of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of the diet and intra-household distribution of food. Combined with good biological utilization of food consumed, this determines the nutritional status of individuals.
  • Stability of the other three dimensions over time.

More about the World Bank Food Security programs

Hello hello

See: Sustainable Development Goals

See: Climate change

Land degradation is the reduction or loss of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rain—fed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest or woodlands resulting from natural processes, land uses or other human activities and habitation patterns such as land contamination, soil erosion and the destruction of the vegetation cover. OECD definition

The concept of materiality (relevance) is used in business sustainability to guide the strategic process of disclosure and communication (internally and externally).

A material topic can have social, societal, environmental and economic impacts, and can affect both the company itself and its stakeholders. A material issue can also have significant implications on stakeholder’s interest in the company, and the decisions they take due to the topic’s high or low relevance.

It is generally recognized best practice that a company reports on the material topics that have a direct or indirect impact on its ability to create, maintain or erode economic, environmental, social value for itself, its stakeholders, the environment, and society at large.

The exercise of looking at material topics and prioritizing their relevance should be periodically iterated, to ensure that all topics of relevance for internal and external stakeholders are captured and reported on how the company is ensuring positive impact long-term.

Actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits.

The overall balance between emitting and absorbing carbon in the atmosphere. The outcome of limiting catastrophic climate change requires companies and countries to become net-zero, and many policies are based on achieving that within certain time frames.

The topic of emissions offsetting is a deep and wide topic with many facets. For specific questions please contact the TUI team. 

An offset represents the reduction, removal or avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions, measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), from a sector/region not subject to an emissions cap. By cutting emissions beyond what is required, offsets play an important role from an environmental perspective. Offset systems also provide a means to link emissions trading systems in the future, even if indirectly. Offsets provide a vital cost-containment tool or safety valve for each system – and each jurisdiction can implement the filters on offset eligibility which it deems necessary, according to predefined criteria. definition

The Paris Agreement, 2015, was an agreement at COP21 with 196 signatory countries pledging to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The matter is complex, and 1.5 degrees is a historic estimate.

See: Planetary Boundaries Framework under Frameworks & Standards

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
In a workplace psychological safety is a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

Business resilience is the ability of an organization to quickly adapt to disruptions(environmental, societal, financial, legislative) while maintaining continuous business operations and safeguarding people, assets and overall brand equity.

Long-term business resilience in a sustainability perspective is about adapting to and adopting behavior that ensures a good balance with the surrounding society and environment, and ensuring the prosperity of people and planet over financial gain.

Provide a clearly-defined pathway for companies and financial institutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

See Emission

In September 2015 the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by all the UN Member States (193) and agreed upon as being a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. The SDGs are expected to be achieved by 2030.

The 17 SDGs are an urgent call for all nations and businesses to stand together and create global and local partnerships for planetary and humanitarian sustainability.

The SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and are predecessors of the Millennium Development Goals (see Millennium Development Goals).

There are 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators. The SDGs are not legally binding for countries (and companies) but governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 Goals.  

Maintaining a balance of resources extracted and resources restored. The 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission’s report ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and
Development: Our Common Future  defines it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable development needs systemic change for the long-term.

Rather than the usual symptoms treatment, systemic changes are fundamental changes, that affect how the whole system and its functions and processes long-term.

Sustainable finance taxonomies are one of the instruments that have been developed to support the redirection of financial flows towards environmentally (and socially) sustainable activities. According to the Bank for International Settlements, sustainable finance taxonomies are “set[s] of criteria which can form the basis for an evaluation of whether and to what extent a financial asset can support given sustainability goals”. The central goal of taxonomies is driving capital allocation towards sustainable activities, reducing greenwashing and enabling simpler comparison.

In climate science, a tipping point is a critical threshold that, when crossed, leads to large and often irreversible changes in the climate system.If tipping points are crossed, they are likely to have severe impacts on human society. Tipping behaviour is found across the climate system, in ecosystems, ice sheets, and the circulation of the ocean and atmosphere. Tipping points are often, but not necessarily, abrupt. For example, with average global warming somewhere between 0.8 °- 3 °C, the Greenland ice sheet passes a tipping point, but its melt would take place over millennia.

A fundamental component of good corporate governance is transparency in the communication. Transparency builds the vital relationships of trust with key partners of any business. To keep track of corporate efforts to achieve sustainable economic, social and environmental development.

The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human wellbeing, and socioeconomic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability (from UN Water). Reduced water security is an impact of climate change.

The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time.

Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.

Frameworks & Standards

A non-exhaustive list of business disclosure and climate related frameworks and standards that companies commit to and report progress on over time

CDP is a global non-profit that runs the world’s environmental disclosure system for investors, companies, cities and governments to assess their impact and take urgent action to build a sustainable economy

An annual meeting of the decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which encourage intergovernmental policy on climate change.

FSC certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. 

An intergovernmental body of the United Nations dedicated to researching and advancing knowledge of climate change. Internationally regarded as the leading scientific authority on climate change, and the author of reports that advise policymakers on the impacts of, and solutions to, climate change.

The United Nations Millennium Declaration, was signed in September 2000, commits world leaders to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.

The 8 goals mainly focused on the developing world, and the success was not considered high, as the actions from more industrialised counties were very low.

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  • Achieve universal primary education.
  • Promote gender equality and empower women.
  • Reduce child mortality.
  • Improve maternal health.
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
  • Ensure environmental sustainability.
  • Global partnership for development.

In 2015 the 17 Sustainable Development Goals took over where the MDGs left off, and created a wider framework for sustainable development and increased the necessity of action from the industrialised countries to lead the path to inclusive development.

MSC Certification is a standard that seeks to ensure a healthy and stable condition of the earth’s fish population and marine ecosystems. MSC certification is a way of showing that a fishery meets international best practices for fishing. 

OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct Guidance is a set of guiding principles and processes for enabling business responsibility and diligent governance of such.

The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth system.


The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a global body enabling businesses to set ambitious emissions reductions targets in line with the latest climate science. The SBTi’s goal is to accelerate companies across the world to support the global economy to halve emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero before 2050. The initiative is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and is one of the We Mean Business Coalition commitments. The SBTi defines and promotes best practice in science-based target setting, offers resources and guidance to reduce barriers to adoption, and independently assesses and approves companies’ targets.

Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) is an international document that was adopted by the United Nations member states in March 2015 at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan, and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in June 2015. It is the successor agreement to the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005–2015), which had been the most encompassing international accord to date on disaster risk reduction.

The TCFD has developed a framework to help public companies and other organizations more effectively disclose climate-related risks and opportunities through their existing reporting processes.

The TCFD process consists of: 

  • Governance
  • Strategy
  • Risk Management
  • Metrics & Targets

UNDRR is the lead UN agency for the coordination of disaster risk reduction.

The UNDRR’s key message is: it pays to invest in reducing the risks posed by disasters. Every dollar spent proactively reducing risks can save fifteen in post-disaster recovery costs. Every dollar invested in making infrastructure disaster-resilient saves four that would otherwise have to be spent rebuilding. 

The United Nations entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change. The parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement. CDP is an accredited observer to the UNFCCC.

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