Sustainability & Social Impact Glossary
The converging and overlapping fields of sustainability, social purpose, and impact measurement are complicated and technical, at best. The alphabet soup of three-letter acronyms (TLAs!) can make already confusing fields seem even harder to approach. Here’s our glossary of terms, frameworks, and TLAs.
President and CEO of Junxion, Mike is an accomplished entrepreneur, consultant and advisor. He's spent more than 20 years working to catalyse social responsibility and sustainability with organizations on four continents.
B Corp – A company that has met high standards of social and environmental performance, as determined by the B Corporation certification process. Also used to refer to the movement of businesses that are all Certified B Corporations. B is always written simply as B but it originally stood for ‘benefit’—a private business that also has public benefits.
B Lab – B Lab is the nonprofit that developed the B Corp certification and that has been lobbying for the enactment of Benefit Corporation legislation in national and sub-national legislatures around the world. B Lab is working to shift the behaviour, culture, and structure of capitalism.
BREEAM – While it sounds like a motorcycle revving, in fact it is the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for master-planning projects, infrastructure and buildings. BREEAM-rated developments are more sustainable environments that enhance the well-being of the people who live and work in them and help protect natural resources.
Business for Good – ‘Big corps’, ‘faceless organizations’, ‘greenwashing’, ‘PR stunt’… It doesn’t have to be like this! In the same way that businesses can do harm, they can also make immensely positive improvements for stakeholders—including customers, suppliers, employees, the planet and communities. By recognising that businesses can help increase social harmony and reduce environmental damage, we can start taking steps to make this happen.
CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) – CDP is a not-for-profit charity that runs the global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions, providing guidance for them to disclose, measure and manage their environmental impacts. They focus on measuring and managing the risks and opportunities of climate change, water security and deforestation.
Circular Economy – Our current economy is a ‘take-make-waste’ system. We take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and in the end, we throw them away as waste. A circular economy is one where we avoid making waste, reuse materials, and help nature regenerate. It does not mean we are going around in circles, making the same arguments again and again about how capitalism needs to reform itself while the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Definitely not. No.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – One of the original terms associated with business addressing the environment and the community in which it operates. CSR is (typically) very customer- and outward-facing. Its critics would prefer to see it turn the company’s attention to business models that aren’t extractive to begin with, and make more transformative changes.
Common Approach – This is a community-driven set of four impact measurement standards that are created for—and governed by—social purpose organizations. This includes the Common Foundations, a framework with five essential practices for how to measure impact. The Common Approach is not yet as common as we’d like to see. So learn more and help us ensure its work contributes to an economy remade to serve the common good. Phew. All that common ground!
Culture – The dynamics between a group of people and the sum of the perceptions, beliefs and values the group possesses. Or what it feels like to be somewhere. Or bacteria in a petri dish.
Climate Justice – Climate change is affecting people around the world differently. Often those who’ve done the least to cause climate breakdown are the ones who suffer the worst of its effects. Climate change solutions must address economic, social, and political considerations as well as environmental ones. For example, it’s important that richer countries provide finance and new technologies to poorer countries so carbon-intensive development doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion.
Doughnut Economic Model – We need to respect planetary and social boundaries in order to survive and thrive. There are real, quantifiable, upper limits to our environmental footprint, and there are real, quantifiable minimum standards for social well-being. Graphed, they look like a doughnut. If we don’t operate within this delicious sweet spot then we could overshoot and generate irreversible damage. We’ll also end up like Homer Simpson.
EU Taxonomy for Sustainable Activities – The EU Commission’s principal mechanism to address “greenwashing.” It sets out criteria for determining if an activity is environmentally sustainable and provides companies and investors with a common language for identifying economic activities that are environmentally sustainable. It came into effect on January 1, 2022.
ESG – Elon Musk’s favourite term…Environment, Social, Governance. Three lenses through which companies can assess their non-financial performance, and through which investors can assess companies’ non-financial risks. While ESG does us the tremendous service of making explicit the complexities all companies must manage, it often and easily stops at risk identification. We need companies to see the potential for creating meaningful positive impact, rather than just doing less harm.
Greenhouse Gases – Never break wind in glass houses. Gaseous matter that is emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect that is warming our planet and contributing to significant, potentially catastrophic climate change.
Greenwashing – A cardinal sin within the sustainability sphere! Make false claims, exaggerate your progress, or otherwise overstate your environmental credentials, and you’re greenwashing. By all means, talk about what you’re doing well! But maybe start by ensuring you’re actually doing well. Consumers want honesty, so be fully transparent about your progress, give concrete statistics (even if they’re not all positive), and pursue accreditations that are rigorous, such as B Corp. Lastly, measure your performance against what the world needs—not merely on whether you’re doing better than last year, or moving ahead of your sector peers.
GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) – This is a widely used and respected set of standards for impact reporting—reporting that presents organizations’ impact on the economy, the environment, and society. Also, ‘general rate increase,’ which Junxion will have to do, if this ‘galloping, runaway inflation’ persists!
Impact Business Model – IBM. But not that IBM. This refers to an operational structure of a business that generates a significant environmental and/or societal impact for a specific stakeholder. Having this type of business model will score you extra points in the B Corp certification. Awesome! It also makes it easier to talk about your brand’s value. And engage and retain employees. And attract customers…Nobody ever got fired for having an IBM.
Impact Investing – Where ESG is often passive—avoiding something—impact investing is proactive. Impact investments are those made to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
Impact Measurement – How will you know your impact investment is having the intended impact if you’re not measuring it? This process includes setting out goals and expectations in an Impact Measurement Framework (IMF. Not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund, though it does measure and report on its impact). The Framework also includes defining audiences, outlining indicators of change, methodologies for collecting data, and processes and objectives for analyzing and reporting data. Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL), performance metrics, and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), are all aspects of impact measurement. There. Three more TLAs. Woot woot!
Intergenerational Equity – Extra points in scrabble for this one. It means valuing the lives of future generations—your children, their children, their children, and so on) equally with the lives of people today in the decisions you make and actions you take.
Intersectionality – Entrenched systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects. All forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be analysed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another.
ISO Standards – ISO standards are internationally agreed ways of doing something, ensuring consistency in the end product regardless of where or what the company is. It could be about making a product, managing a process, delivering a service or supplying materials. They are not exclusively environmentally focused but there are several environmental ISO standards such as ISO20400 for green procurement and ISO 50001 for energy usage.
JEDI – An acronym for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. A framework of principles that when applied, supports individuals, organizations, communities, and societies to acknowledge, unpack, and address the inherent, entrenched, conscious and unconscious, systemic power dynamics and inequities that permeate all facets of our lives, many of which have their roots in colonialism, extractive capitalism, and the unconscious use of power.
Logic Model – Spock meets Iman? No. A tool that illustrates how desired impact can be realised by using specific inputs to achieve sequenced, specific outputs and outcomes. Logic models include specific indicators that can be evaluated, which enables users to ‘test’ the logic. Therefore, logic models can be a tool used to evaluate a Theory of Change.
Materiality Analysis – A process to determine the most important, relevant or material topics for a business to address in its sustainability strategy. Single materiality is the most common. It consists of looking at climate risks that are likely to affect bottom line financial returns. Double materiality looks at how businesses’ operations affect society and the environment. To go even further, organizations can use context-based materiality, which essentially takes into account impacts on stakeholder well-being. This is more holistic than the climate focus of double materiality. I want to make a joke about the ‘material girl,’ but I’m afraid I’ll seem like a pre-Madonna.
Mission Creep – That weird guy, standing in the corner at the sustainability conference? No. Even with a clear purpose, vision and mission, organizations can be distracted by opportunities to do more, tempting them to beyond their capacity. Soon, their mission creeps away from their mandate, sapping resources, and eroding the likelihood they’ll achieve their vision.
Net Zero – A really low score in basketball. Actually, Net Zero at a global scale is a point of equilibrium at which the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) we emit is equal to the amount that gets gobbled up by the ecosystem, rather than being stranded in the atmosphere, where it contributes to global heating. At the level of a single company, achieving net zero means reducing Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions to the absolute minimum and any emissions you cannot reduce (residual emissions) are offset using high-quality, trusted carbon removal projects.
Offsetting – Most companies, households, and people are responsible for generating carbon emissions. Offsetting is the practice of funding projects that extract the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Offsetting must only be used for residual emissions—ones you cannot reduce through new and existing technologies. One of the issues with offsetting is additionality—when a carbon sink already exists or was being planned regardless of the carbon offset investment, it does not add to total carbon reduction figures. For example, a forest that was going to be re-forested is sold as an offset project. This project was going to be operational regardless and therefore isn’t taking any additional carbon out of the atmosphere. Despite John Oliver’s simplistic (yes, funny) quips, there is such a thing as a quality, additive offset. Just ask our friends and client, Ostrom Climate Solutions.
Performative Marketing – Brands jumping on board popular movements and publicly showing support, without really addressing the way they do business and the impact that they have.
Purpose Economy – An economy powered by the pursuit of long-term well-being for all, in which business, regulatory, and financial systems foster an equitable, flourishing, resilient future.
Planned Obsolescence – In some ways, humans are planning their own obsolescence by continuing to degrade the environment! On point: product manufacturers often create products that they know will degrade or expire so that consumers will come back to buy more… and then waste more. Planned obsolescence was born in the 1920s when the Phoebus Cartel put a limit on how many hours an incandescent light bulb should burn (despite it being able to go for a lot longer).
Product Stewardship – This approach asserts that everyone who is involved in the product chain (production, service, delivery, use and disposal) has a responsibility to lower that product’s environmental impact. Most of the responsibility comes from the producers of the product since they build in recyclability, durability etc., but consumers also have a role to play by ensuring they’ve used the product to the maximum before repurposing, upcycling, recycling, or disposing of it.
Rebound Effects – As technologies get more efficient, we should expect fewer emissions and waste, right? Unfortunately, this ignores human behaviour. With rebound effects, when something becomes more efficient, we know that we can produce more to get the same output. For example, a driver replaces their car with a more fuel-efficient model. Instead of driving the same distances and thus emitting fewer emissions, they might make use of lower running costs by driving further and more regularly, thus leading to the same or even greater emissions. Damn, people are complicated.
Regulatory Capture – Regulators exist to keep checks and balances on producers, for the benefit of consumers. However, when producers have significant lobbying power they can sometimes influence government agencies. This leads to the regulator favouring laws and practices that favour producers rather than consumers. Of course, this never happens in real life, right? No, I can’t think of any industries that may have captured regulators…
Residual Emissions – As part of Net Zero commitments, companies are required to reduce their greenhouse gases as much as they feasibly can. It’s impossible to produce zero emissions, though, and any remaining emissions are called residual emissions. It’s acceptable to offset these using high-quality, trusted carbon removal projects.
Right to Repair – Manufacturers often make it difficult or impossible for users to repair their devices (see Planned Obsolescence). This leads to a huge amount of waste and incessant production. The Right to Repair movement is a push to make it illegal for this to continue. Advocates would also like to see a repairability score as part of the existing energy label for all energy-consuming products.
Shared Value – Initiated by consulting firm FSG, Shared Value is anchored in the premise that companies’ competitiveness and the health of their surrounding communities are mutually dependent. By recognizing this and building strategy from this, companies can unlock new value and new opportunities for growth.
Social Purpose Business – A company whose enduring reason for being is to create a better world. It is an engine for good, creating social benefits by the very act of conducting business. Its growth is a positive force in society.
Stakeholder Capitalism – An economic system that serves all those who have a stake in companies’ success—rather than merely serving the needs of shareholders.
Sustainability – Put simply, living within our means as a planet. The three pillars look at environmental, economic and social considerations. Unfortunately, as a result of the climate crisis, sustainability doesn’t go far enough. We need regenerative and restorative practices from governments, organizations, and individuals.
Systems Thinking – Sometimes issues appear straightforward. In reality, many of the challenges we face are complex, interconnected, and interdependent. Systems thinking is essentially zooming out. Feedback loops, interconnectivity analyses, and interdisciplinary collaboration don’t sound like a wild Saturday night, but without having a systems lens, we cannot bring about real change. For example, circular economy thinking solves many environmental problems but often doesn’t place enough emphasis on the social aspects of our economy, such as income inequality and gender pay disparity.
TCFD – Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. Ooooh! A four-letter acronym! Created in 2015 by the Financial Stability Board (FSB), this initiative encourages businesses to disclose their climate-related risks and opportunities. Initially voluntary, it was made mandatory in April 2022 by the UK government. We’d love to see this regulation adopted by other countries! Ahem: We’re looking at you, G7!
Theory of Change (ToC) – In theory, you can change. But really, will you? It’s not you. It’s me. A ToC is a graphic and narrative explanation of how and why a change process is expected to happen in a particular context. It is also a process that can allow an organization to better understand its potential to achieve ambitious change goals. Finally, a ToC is a roadmap that can inform refinement of objectives or additions, changes, or scaling of organizations’ strategies to achieve change goals.
TNFD – Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures. Following on from TCFD, this is a risk management and disclosure framework for organizations to report and act on nature-related risks. There is increasing uptake, but it is not yet legislated, like TCFD is in the UK.
Triple Bottom Line – Profit, People and Planet. A true Triple Bottom Line business doesn’t just measure success in financial terms, but also by understanding its social and environmental impact too. This term was ‘recalled’ by John Elkington who first coined the term. Whilst TBL has achieved some success, it has often been used merely as an accounting tool and not for fundamental thinking about systemic change. The ‘profit’ component has been seen as purely financial profit; if your company makes a good profit then great! However, the profit element was supposed to reflect the economic benefits a company can have, for example paying taxes, providing employment and generating innovation. Plus, most applications of triple bottom line thinking try to balance them against each other, rather than seeking to develop an integrated model. (See Social Purpose Business for the solution.)
TrustBrand – TrustBrand is Junxion’s values-driven approach to putting a public face on your organizational strategy. Think of it as branding, but bigger. And better. Find out more here.
TurningPoint – This is Junxion’s strategy and planning methodology. Whether you’re stepping into social responsibility or sustainability for the first time, or working at the forefront of social innovation, TurningPoint is designed to help you change your organization, your sector, and maybe even our world. Learn more here.
Woke Washing – When companies declare their support for a social cause, but at the same time harm the communities for which they claim to advocate. For example, if a fast-fashion label known for female exploitation and gender inequality praises women on International Women’s Day, you could wave the woke washing flag! (See also Performative Marketing.)