Talking About Sustainability: What’s New in the “Green” Lexicon?

From “green loans” to “green hushing” – environmental discourse is continually expanding with new terms to guide us through a sustainability-oriented world. So, what's the latest in the green lexicon?

The climate crisis affects more than our forests, seas, and habitats. It’s changing our vocabulary too. As we grapple with the changes required to sustain life on our planet, we’re constantly developing new ways to discuss ecologically sound ways of living, travelling, and producing. In our transition to a sustainable world, one adjective reigns supreme: green.

Green is the color we most vividly associate with nature. This is why although the natural world abounds in earthy browns, inky blues, and deep reds, green is the color that predominates in the sustainability lexicon. The term is used liberally as a prefix to other terms in the environmental/sustainability lexicon, either to highlight positive alignment or negative trends. In the following, we’ll dive into the many ways this leafy prefix has rewritten our dictionaries. When it comes to discussing the environment, green will always be the new black.

The Classics

Before we move onto the rising stars of the green lexicon, let’s start with the classics. Most of us will have come across these already, so we won’t spend too much time recapping them. But given their decisive impact on the way we talk about ecology, they more than deserve an honorable mention.

Global warming – We’ll set the scene with the exception that proves the rule. Though this expression is not prefixed with green, it is core to understanding the larger movement towards sustainability. Global warming describes the gradual but relentless increase of earth’s average temperature over prolonged periods of time due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A phenomenon harmful for the entire ecosystem.

Greenhouse gases – Though CO2 is the arch-villain behind the drastic environmental changes witnessed in recent years, it’s not the only antagonist. Higher concentrations of methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and other waste gases are also responsible for global warming. These greenhouse gases speed up climate change, negatively impacting all living species on our planet.

Greenhouse effect – This is how the aforementioned gases trap contribute to climate change. By trapping excessive heat in the environment, greenhouse gases warm the earth’s surface to the detriment of the ecosystem.

Rising Stars

Now that we’ve paid our dues to the anchors, we can move on to the rising stars in the world of ecology and sustainability discourse. They provide vital new ways of discussing developments relating to climate change. Let’s get into it!

Green living – A way of life where alignment with nature and environment wellbeing is the focus. Advocates of green living seek to reduce one’s individual carbon footprint by embracing sustainability practices in word and spirit. From avoiding unnecessary travel (planes, cars etc.) to using less air conditioning to planting/tending to plants and trees, many of the practices associated with green living can seem difficult at first. But over time, adopting a green lifestyle becomes second nature – and can inspire those around you to do the same.

Green loansWorld Bank’s Climate explainer series defines a green loan as “a form of financing that enables borrowers to use the proceeds to exclusively fund projects that make a substantial contribution to an environmental objective.” The aim here is to provide financial support for green initiatives – especially those which might otherwise struggle to raise capital via traditional channels.

Green Tag – A tradeable energy certificate originally developed in the early 1990s in California by owners of wind energy facilities and the utility companies that they were selling to. Buying a Green Tag lets you legitimately claim that your home or business was powered by renewable sources like wind, solar, and so on. This helps eco-conscious customers to identify and consume green energy. There is a premium value for clean and green power over conventional fossil fuel produced power.

Greenwashing – Misrepresenting or making false claims either explicitly or implicitly that a product or service is “green.” In a world where more and more people are seeking to reduce their environmental impact, many companies have deemed it profitable to adopt language which misleads consumers into believing their products and services are eco-friendly. But what firms need to understand is that the legal and financial implications of greenwashing may be many times greater than the revenue they hope to generate through misrepresentations.

Green hushing – This term is a more recent one. It is about companies deliberately keeping their sustainability initiatives under wraps, not voicing their sustainability commitments, and hushing-up their green programs. Top motives for companies to do this are to avoid scrutiny, legal trouble, and reputational risk. Many companies prefer to remain silent as to their green commitments rather than risk greenwashing charges or reputational damage should they be seen to miss their own targets or underperform as compared to their peers.

South Pole’s 2022 Net Zero report found that one in four companies (of the 1200 companies surveyed by them) employed a sustainability head, are climate-aware, support Net Zero commitments with science-based targets, but do not plan to talk about it. That is a fourth of the sample! This is not a good trend. It gives companies an opportunity to set softer targets, since scrutiny can be avoided with a non-declared commitment, while also limiting knowledge sharing across companies and industries. Most importantly, green hushing serves to underplay the extent of sustainability efforts across the system, stunting progress and sapping the momentum behind the green transition.

The color green provides more than just a practical shorthand when discussing environmental issues. Without a shared way of discussing new phenomena, we run the risk of insidious practices like greenwashing and green hushing flying under the radar – potentially thwarting the hard-won progress of the sustainability movement. Spreading awareness of green terminology can empower people to highlight positive ecological developments – and call out negative trends. This is a matter of global importance for those seeking to tackle climate change. Because you can’t solve a problem, unless you name it first.

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Saloni Ramakrishna

Saloni Ramakrishna is a seasoned professional with almost three decades of experience in financial services, currently serving as a Senior Director at Oracle. In addition to her role in banking, and technology, she is a published author, prolific columnist, and acclaimed speaker. Saloni is deeply passionate about Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues, with a particular focus on climate change.

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