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Decoding Environmental Buzzwords: Five Terms You Need to Know (Part 2)

The world of sustainability is complex. Using precise terminology makes it simpler. Misunderstandings or misuse of terms can lead to confusion in communication, strategy development, and ultimately in achieving strategic goals. 

In a recent blog we covered part one of this post, in part two, we'll delve into five more pairs of commonly misused environmental terms, providing clear definitions and distinctions for each. By understanding the nuances between these terms, you'll gain clarity on how and when to use them effectively.

6. Recycling vs. Upcycling
  • Recycling: The process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. Recycling typically involves breaking down the material to create new products of the same type or lower quality.
  • Upcycling: Reusing discarded objects or materials in a way that creates a product of higher quality or value than the original. Upcycling often involves creativity and craftsmanship to transform waste into something more desirable.

Difference: Recycling involves breaking down materials to form new products, often resulting in a loss of material quality. Upcycling maintains the original material's quality or enhances it, creating something of higher value.

Example: Recycling glass bottles involves melting them down to make new glass products. Upcycling would involve taking an old wooden pallet and converting it into a stylish piece of furniture, adding value through craftsmanship.

7. Climate Change vs. Global Warming
  • Climate Change: Long-term changes in temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, and other aspects of the Earth’s climate system. Climate change encompasses a wide range of phenomena, including shifts in weather patterns, more intense and frequent extreme weather events (such as hurricanes, heatwaves, and heavy rainfall), changes in ocean currents, melting ice caps and glaciers, and rising sea levels. It is driven by both natural processes and human activities, with the latter being the dominant factor in recent centuries due to the increased concentration of greenhouse gases from activities like burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes.
  • Global Warming: Specific aspect of climate change referring to the increase in Earth's average surface temperature due to the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The primary cause of global warming is the enhanced greenhouse effect, where gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) trap more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to higher global temperatures.

Difference: While Global Warming refers specifically to the rise in global temperatures due to human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases, Climate Change encompasses the broader array of changes occurring in our climate system, including temperature rises, but also other changes such as altered precipitation patterns, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns. Global warming is a major component of climate change, but climate change includes all of the diverse and interconnected effects that arise from this warming.

Example: Global Warming can be observed in the consistent increase in average global temperatures measured over the past century. Climate Change is evident in the broader effects of this warming, such as the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, prolonged droughts in some regions, changing agricultural conditions, shifts in wildlife populations and migration patterns, and rising sea levels threatening coastal communities.

8. Environmental Footprint vs. Carbon Footprint
  • Environmental Footprint: A measure of human demand on Earth's ecosystems, including resource consumption and waste generation. It encompasses a wide range of environmental impacts, such as water use, land use, pollution and biodiversity loss. It provides a comprehensive overview of how an individual's or organisation's activities affect the planet's ecosystems and natural resources. Environmental footprints help identify areas where sustainable practices can be implemented to reduce overall environmental impact.
  • Carbon Footprint: A measure of the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, organisation, event, or product, expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2e). It includes emissions from activities such as burning fossil fuels for energy, transportation, and industrial processes. The carbon footprint focuses specifically on the contribution to global warming and climate change.

Difference: Environmental Footprint is a broader measure that includes various types of environmental impacts, while Carbon Footprint focuses specifically on greenhouse gas emissions.

Example: A company's Environmental Footprint might include the amount of water used in manufacturing, the land occupied by its facilities, and the waste generated during production. Its Carbon Footprint, on the other hand, would calculate the CO2 emissions from its energy use, transportation, and other processes that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

9. Zero Waste vs. Circular Economy
  • Zero Waste: A goal to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incineration by reusing, recycling, and reducing consumption. The aim is to achieve as close to zero waste as possible.
  • Circular Economy: Economic system aimed at eliminating waste and continually using resources. It involves redesigning products and processes to keep materials in use for as long as possible through reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling.

Difference: Zero Waste focuses on reducing waste generation and maximising recycling, while Circular Economy encompasses a broader systemic change to design out waste and keep materials in use, creating a closed-loop system.

Example: A company implementing Zero Waste practices might set up comprehensive recycling and composting programs to minimise landfill waste. Embracing a Circular Economy would involve redesigning products for durability, reparability, and recyclability to keep materials in use indefinitely.

10. Cradle-to-Gate vs. Cradle-to-Grave
  • Cradle-to-Gate: An assessment of a product’s environmental impact from the extraction of raw materials (cradle) to the factory gate, before it reaches the consumer.
  • Cradle-to-Grave: An assessment of a product’s environmental impact from the extraction of raw materials through its entire lifecycle, including production, use, and disposal (grave).

Difference: Cradle-to-Gate focuses on the impacts up to the point where the product leaves the factory. Cradle-to-Grave considers the entire lifecycle of the product, including its use and disposal. Read more about the importance of system boundaries when communicating life cycle assessment (LCA) results. 

Example: A Cradle-to-Gate assessment of a smartphone would measure the environmental impact from raw material extraction to assembly. A Cradle-to-Grave assessment would include the impact of the smartphone during its use by consumers and its eventual disposal or recycling.

  • Cradle to Shelf: This term refers to the assessment of a product’s environmental impact from the extraction of raw materials (cradle) through the manufacturing process and transportation to the point of sale (shelf). It does not include the use phase of the product or its end-of-life disposal. Cradle to shelf assessments are often used by businesses to understand the environmental impact of their products up to the point they are sold, allowing them to identify opportunities for reducing impacts in the supply chain and production stages.
  • Cradle to Grave: This term refers to the assessment of a product’s environmental impact from the extraction of raw materials (cradle) through its entire life cycle, including manufacturing, transportation, use, and final disposal (grave). Cradle to grave provides a comprehensive overview of the total environmental impact of a product, considering all stages of its life, which helps in making more sustainable choices by understanding the long-term effects.

Difference: While Cradle to Shelf focuses on the environmental impacts only up to the point of sale, Cradle to Grave includes the full life cycle of the product, encompassing its use and disposal phases. While Cradle to Shelf is useful for businesses looking to improve production and supply chain sustainability, it lacks the complete picture provided by a Cradle to Grave, which would allow for improvements of a product’s impact over its entire life cycle. 

Example: A company might use a Cradle to Shelf analysis to determine the impact associated with producing and transporting a product to the store. In contrast, if a Cradle to Grave analysis were performed, it would be able to reformulate a product in full consciousness of the impacts of the proposed changes across the entire life cycle of the product leaving no surprises behind.

10. EIA vs. LCA

  • Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): A process that evaluates the environmental effects of a proposed project or development before it begins. It considers potential impacts on the environment, including social, cultural, and economic aspects, and proposes measures to mitigate negative effects.
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): A method used to assess the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life, from raw material extraction through to disposal. LCA provides a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects and potential impacts throughout a product’s lifecycle.

Difference: EIA is project-focused and is typically conducted before a project is implemented to predict and mitigate potential environmental impacts. LCA is product-focused and examines the environmental impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of a product, from cradle to grave.

Example: An EIA might be conducted before constructing a new factory to assess potential impacts on local ecosystems and propose mitigation strategies. An LCA might be conducted for a new type of packaging to evaluate its environmental impacts from material extraction to disposal.


Understanding the precise meaning of these terms is crucial for effective communication and impactful action in sustainability. By distinguishing between these commonly misused pairs, you can ensure your messaging is clear and accurate, fostering better collaboration and decision-making. At Sustained, we go beyond merely defining these terms; we provide comprehensive solutions to help businesses measure and reduce their environmental impact across multiple dimensions. Our tools and expertise support your journey toward sustainability, from reducing environmental footprints starting from the products you manufacture or sell, to preserving biodiversity or achieving net zero commitments. Partner with us to navigate the complexities of environmental impact and drive meaningful change in your organisation.