Sustainability. Greenwashing. Cradle-to-grave. There’s a lot of terminology out there; here is some deciphering. Also visit Living Principles for many more terms and definitions.

big words are scary. here's some help.


A material produced by a living thing (like starch or cellulose, a plant product) that may be biodegradable or compostable. See also ‘GMO (genetically-modified organism)’.

Carbon neutral

A company can become carbon neutral by assessing and reducing some energy use, and then counteracting or ‘offsetting’ the remaining energy by other activities, for example helping to fund renewable power sources. More here.

Carbon positive

The next step after becoming ‘carbon neutral’. Not only counteracting the carbon dioxide that you create but also informing and encouraging a change in the habits of others to combat climate change. Visit ‘the carbon journey’ here.

Cradle to cradle

A process in which all materials used can either be recycled at the end of their ‘life cycle’ without any loss of quality, or disposed of to provide nourishment for the natural environment rather than harming it. The result is an essentially waste-free system.

Ecological footprint

The size of your ‘footprint’ represents the area of the Earth’s surface necessary to sustain your resource consumption. (If the entire world lived like Americans, we would need five planets.) Calculate your footprint here.

Embodied energy

Embodied energy covers all the energy needed to extract and process, transport, assemble and later dispose of a material or resource. See also ‘lifetime costing’.

EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate)

A soft, clear, flexible plastic adhesive used at high temperatures in binding.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)

An international not-for-profit organization that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests. See also FSC certification of paper. However there has been recent dispute over the quality and merit of their methods and accreditation.

FSC certification

This means that materials like paper have been made with trees from FSC-approved, managed forests. (But it does not give information about factory environmental standards.)

GMO (genetically-modified organism)

A living thing that is genetically modified to have certain traits, such as the ability to produce biopolymers. (See also ‘biopolymers’.)

Green Seal

Green Seal-certified papers are either: A. manufactured with a minimum of 30% post consumer waste, or B. manufactured without chlorine or chlorine derivatives.

HDPE (high-density polyethylene)

A strong, hard, and often opaque plastic made from petroleum. It is often labeled with the number 2 for recycling purposes.

LDPE (low-density polyethylene)

A flexible, tough, and relatively breakable plastic made from petroleum, often recycled as #4 plastic.

Life cycle analysis

A technique to assess the impacts of a product or process on people and the environment. In the case of a manufactured product, the analysis looks at all inputs (like materials and energy) and outputs (waste generated) throughout each phase of a product’s life cycle in order to help designers make informed decisions.

Lifetime costing

Assessing the environmental impact of a product based on how much energy and materials it uses or wastes throughout its whole life cycle. For example it may seem best to always use recycled materials. However if it is not hard-wearing and must be replaced over and over, it could translate to more energy over the course of a product’s life than a harder-wearing alternative.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate)

A synthetic material often used in packaging for food and drink, as well as synthetic fibers. Its recycling symbol is the number ‘1’.

Post-consumer waste

An end product which has reached the consumer, been used and then recycled rather than gone to a landfill. Contrast with ‘recycled paper’.

PP (polypropylene)

A plastic used to make a wide variety of things including packaging, textiles, and resuable containers. It is often opaque, and recycled under the number’5’.

PS (polystyrene)

One of the most common plastics, made from petroleum to be hard and colorless. It can be found in disposable tableware, CD and DVD cases, and styrofoam. Though it is recyclable, it takes a very long time to biodegrade.

PUR (polyurethane)

A diverse group of many synthetic materials with many uses, including binding glues, tires, Spandex, and automotive parts.


Polymer of vinyl chloride; an extremely common plastic used in graphic display products such as banners and signs. Producing it creates toxic chemicals, and at the end of its lifetime it must be buried or burned. Burning it produces hydrochloric acid. Pressure must be put on suppliers to stock and use alternatives to PVC.

Recycled paper

Contains at least some waste fiber, but this may be a small proportion or may just mean offcuts from the printer. Contrary to old myths, recycled paper is NOT necessarily more expensive than other papers. Contrast with ‘post-consumer waste’. Visit to learn more.

SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative)

The SFI forest certification program was made to address concerns about forest management and illegal logging. It is internationally recognized and science-based.

SFI certification

The SFI label means that a paper’s fiber came from certified forests or was sourced through SFI’s rigorous fiber sourcing program. This helps consumers choose products that come from well-managed forests.

SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership)

This partnership seeks to keep the printing industry viable and growing while reducing environmental impact, maximizing recycling, and using renewable energy. Go to to find a certified printer near you.

Soy-based inks

Inks created with a vegetable base rather than a traditional petroleum base. Soy-based ink produce just as high-quality printed results. Printers using soy-based inks can be found on

Supply chain

A system of organizations, people, technology, activities, information and resources involved in creating a product and delivering it to a customer. Used products may re-enter the supply chain when they are reused or recycled.


Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable design reduces environmental impact while maintaining or even improving quality of life.

Virgin fiber / virgin paper

Paper which has been made directly from trees; i.e. it has no recycled or post-consumer recycled content. If you must use virgin fiber, look for FSC certification.