Unpacking Sustainability Jargon

Sustainability in Construction 101 – Article 2:

SUSTAINABILITY IN CONSTRUCTION: Understanding commonly used sustainability jargon

Sustainability has become an increasingly important issue in recent years for the construction industry as the world faces growing environmental, social, and economic challenges. In order to effectively address these challenges, it is essential to understand commonly used sustainability jargon.

Ever found yourself wondering about the difference between carbon neutral, net zero carbon, carbon footprint, and carbon off-setting? We recently carried out a LinkedIn Poll to see just how confident people working in the construction industry were in understanding the key terms commonly used in discussions about sustainability. Only 7% were very confident that they understood all the key terms. Whilst 57% were either only ‘Somewhat Confident’ or ‘Not Confident’.

Therefore, as part of our series on Sustainability in Construction, we felt it would be helpful to provide definitions of some key terms. We take a look at terminology both specific to the construction industry, and some more widely used terms relating to sustainability in general.


Understanding sustainability terms and definitions is crucial for professionals working in the construction industry for several reasons:

1.UK Sustainability Targets

One of the primary reasons for understanding sustainability jargon and terminology is to meet sustainability targets. The UK government has set a target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the construction industry will play a significant role in achieving this goal. Understanding key sustainability concepts such as carbon footprint, circular economy, and embodied carbon is critical to meeting these targets.

2. Meeting Sustainability Goals:

Many construction projects are required to meet sustainability goals and certifications, such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).  Understanding sustainability terms and definitions is necessary to meet these goals and achieve certification.

3. Environmental Impact:

Through incorporating sustainable practices such as green building materials, energy-efficient design, and waste reduction measures, construction professionals can help reduce the environmental impact of their projects. However, to effectively implement these practices, it is important to understand the terminology and jargon associated with sustainable construction.

4. Regulatory Compliance:

Governments and regulatory bodies are increasingly implementing laws and regulations related to sustainability, such as energy efficiency standards, renewable energy requirements, and carbon emission limits.

5. Reputation and Client Satisfaction:

Sustainability is an increasingly important consideration for clients and customers in the construction industry. Companies that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and can deliver sustainable projects are likely to have a competitive advantage over those that do not. Understanding sustainability jargon and terminology can help construction professionals communicate their sustainability credentials to clients and stakeholders, enhancing their reputation and competitiveness in the industry.

Commonly referred to Sustainability Terms:

Sustainability: Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves balancing environmental, social, and economic concerns in decision-making to create long-term solutions that are equitable and just for all.

Sustainable development: Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Environmental Sustainability: Environmental sustainability refers to the responsible use and management of natural resources in a way that does not deplete or damage them for future generations. It involves reducing waste and pollution, conserving biodiversity, and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Social Sustainability: Social sustainability refers to the ability of societies to maintain and enhance their well-being by meeting basic human needs, promoting social equity and justice, and supporting cultural diversity. It involves building strong and inclusive communities that provide access to basic needs such as food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare.

Economic Sustainability: Economic sustainability refers to the ability of an economy to provide for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves balancing economic growth with environmental and social considerations, promoting fair trade and decent work, and ensuring access to resources and services.

Triple Bottom Line: The Triple Bottom Line is a framework for evaluating sustainability that considers the environmental, social, and economic impacts of an activity or decision. It involves measuring and reporting on outcomes in each of these three areas to ensure that all aspects of sustainability are addressed.

Green Economy: A low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive economy which aims at reducing environmental risks, managing ecological scarcities and aims for sustainable development without harming the environment.

Circular Economy: A circular economy is an economic system that aims to minimize waste and maximize the use of resources by keeping materials in use for as long as possible. It involves reducing the production of waste, reusing and recycling materials, and designing products and systems for circularity.

Ecological footprint: A measure of the impact that human activities have on the natural environment, including the use of land, water, and other resources.

Renewable energy: Energy sources that are replenished naturally, such as solar, wind, and hydro power.

Greenhouse gases: Gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and contribute to global warming, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others.

Climate change: The long-term changes in the Earth’s climate, including changes in temperature, precipitation, and weather patterns, caused primarily by human activities.

Energy efficiency: The use of less energy to perform the same task, such as through the use of energy-efficient appliances and building materials.

Biodiversity: The variety of life on Earth, including the variety of species, ecosystems, and genetic diversity.

Carbon footprint: A measure of the amount of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) emitted by an individual, organization, or product.

Carbon Neutral: Carbon Neutral refers to achieving a balance between the amount of carbon emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. This can be done by either reducing emissions or by offsetting emissions through activities such as reforestation or carbon capture.

Carbon Offsetting: Carbon offsetting involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions in one place to compensate for emissions produced in another. This is done by investing in projects that reduce or remove emissions, such as renewable energy or reforestation projects, and receiving carbon credits that can be used to offset emissions produced elsewhere.

Net Zero Carbon: Net zero carbon refers to the balance of carbon emissions produced and removed from the atmosphere, but with a greater emphasis on reducing emissions rather than offsetting. This means that all emissions from an activity or building are minimized as much as possible through energy efficiency measures and the use of renewable energy, and any remaining emissions are offset through carbon removal or storage.

Carbon Negative: Carbon Negative refers to a state or condition in which an entity, such as a product, process, organisation, or individual, removes more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than it emits. To become carbon negative, it is generally understood that an entity first needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions and then go beyond by offsetting additional emissions through carbon removal or carbon sequestration activities.

Sustainability in construction – common terms relating to sustainability in construction:

Sustainability in Construction: refers to the design, construction and maintenance of buildings and infrastructure in a way that minimizes the negative environmental impact, maximizes the use of renewable resources, and promotes social and economic well-being.

BREEAM: Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method. A sustainability assessment method for buildings and infrastructure in the United Kingdom, Europe, Middle East, and Asia.

LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a green building certification system developed in the US by the US Green Building Council.

Green Building: Green building, also known as sustainable building, refers to the design, construction, and operation of buildings that have minimal negative impact on the environment and promote a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for the occupants. It is an approach to building that prioritizes energy efficiency, water conservation, use of sustainable and non-toxic materials, and waste reduction.

Green Building Material: A building material that is produced, extracted, harvested, or manufactured with minimal negative environmental impact, and that is either recyclable or biodegradable.

Passive House: A building standard that focuses on energy efficiency and thermal comfort, using high levels of insulation, airtightness, and efficient heating and cooling systems.

Green roof: A roof that is partially or completely covered with vegetation, which can help to reduce energy use, improve air quality, and provide other environmental benefits.

Rainwater harvesting: The collection and storage of rainwater for use in non-potable applications such as irrigation, toilet flushing, or cooling systems

Greywater recycling: The reuse of wastewater from sinks, showers, and other sources for non-potable applications such as irrigation and toilet flushing.

Daylighting: The use of natural light to illuminate buildings, reducing the need for artificial lighting and energy consumption.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA): A tool for assessing the environmental impact of a building over its entire life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the end of its useful life.

Net Zero Energy Building: A building that produces as much energy as it consumes over a year through a combination of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Sustainability indicators: Metrics used to measure and track progress towards sustainability goals, such as the use of renewable energy or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Embodied Carbon: The greenhouse gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials

It is important to note that these are some common terms but the field of sustainability is vast and encompasses many other terms, but understanding these will provide a good starting point. Understanding these key sustainability terms is essential for anyone working in the construction industry. By incorporating sustainable building practices into their work, construction professionals can help to create a more sustainable future for all.

Further Reading:

Sustainability 101:

1. What is sustainability and why does it matter to your business?

2. Unpacking sustainability jargon – what do some of these terms actually mean?

3. Taking your first steps on the sustainability journey – where to start?

4. How to approach your sustainability strategy

5. How to introduce sustainability into construction workplaces: small changes, big impact.

6. Leading the way: The role of leadership in achieving sustainability in construction.

7. Understanding Greenwashing and how to avoid it.

8. Looking to the Future

Find out more about Sustainability at THX :

THX is a certified carbon neutral business

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