Overused, misleading, and unoriginal: 5 mainstream ‘eco-terms’ we need to stop using.

Image by Intel Free Press | flickr creative commons

Image by Intel Free Press | flickr creative commons

After three years of studying resource and environmental management, I have read my fair share of environmentally-focused textbooks, peer-reviewed literature, opinion pieces, and student research papers. 

It would be difficult to pinpoint whether it started with large organizations and corporations encouraging their public relations teams to push strong environmental agendas (regardless of true intentions), or the eruption of environmental non-profits promoting the need for sustainability (we’ll come back to that word), but a vocabulary of vague, insincere, and borderline meaningless ‘eco-terms’ has formed throughout recent history. 

The words and terms themselves, when used a) with purpose and b) in alignment with the intended context, are undeniably still capable of holding meaning. But most often, ever since these once influential terms entered the mainstream environmental literature, they are more often than not used as thoughtless buzzwords and space-fillers. The major problem is that most of us have become desensitized to the intended meaning of these terms, and no longer critically evaluate the meaning of such words, or ensure that people are held accountable for such claims branching from their use.

I know that I am not the first person to raise this issue. I'm even guilty of throwing one of these words into a sentence or two once in a while. Nevertheless, based on my personal experience, here are today’s most overused ‘eco-terms’, in order from the slightly obnoxious to the worst offenders:

5. Adaptive Management

Example: “We will implement [passive/active] adaptive management practices in this upcoming initiative to address overfishing in order to continuously ensure we are putting the best plans into action.” (However, in this case, the author would not actually have any intention of integrating feedback or learning into the management plan).

What it is supposed to mean: Largely developed by former University of British Columbia ecologist C.S. Holling, adaptive management is a sophisticated, comprehensive, and robust model of decision-making and planning designed to account for various factors such as uncertainty and feedback.  Usually, learning itself is a specific objective of the management practice.

What it usually means: Any initiative where there is flexibility to change management strategies throughout the duration of the project.

Why this is a problem: Despite the apparent simplicity of the term, adaptive management was designed to mean so much more than being willing to change a game plan partway through an initiative. True adaptive management practices require substantial investments into collecting and analyzing feedback from various stakeholders and deliberately learning from successes and failures to improve future management practices.

4. Resilience

Example: “Although climate change may negatively impact wetland ecosystems, these types of environments are highly resilient, and will likely adapt to the changing environment.”

What it is supposed to mean: An ecological term coined again by Holling, referring to the ability of entire ecosystems to persist and function following a substantial change, anthropogenic or otherwise.  It is an evaluation of the adaptability of an ecosystem, either in terms of the capacity to maintain its function despite experiencing disturbances (such as natural or human-caused drought, flooding, or fire), or the time required to return to equilibrium following a disturbance.   

What it usually means: It is almost as if any degree of resilience demonstrated by an ecosystem gives us permission to disturb the environment because - hey, look at that – this ecosystem is resilient! 

Why this is a problem: Very few ecosystems, if any, have absolutely zero ability to adapt to disturbance.  What differentiates truly resilient ecosystems, such as wetlands, for example, from other systems that also are not automatically destroyed by minor degrees of change is their remarkable ability to thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions.  It is important to realize that resilience is not static.  Ecosystems remain resilient only within a particular range of environmental conditions.  If these thresholds are surpassed, for example, through natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or anthropogenic climate change, these habitats and their species are at risk. Resilient ecosystems deserve respect, not exploitation.   

3. Toxin

Note: This term isn’t quite in line with the others mentioned here, but as an environmental toxicology student – and I may be ridiculously biased – this one frustrates me the most (ask any of my friends – they’ve all heard my rant). 

Example: “Our environment is contaminated with so many toxins – mercury, DDT, PCBs, phthalates…” (Insert almost any environmental contaminant here).

What it is supposed to mean: None of these things are ‘toxins’. - they're ‘toxicants’.  Why?  By definition, the word ‘toxin’ refers to a toxic substance of biological (i.e., plant or animal) origin.  Apparently, I am not the first person to pull my hair out over this misuse of words.  In fact, I recently completed a graduate level toxicology course whereby our instructor would proceed to legitimately scold us if we ever misused the word ‘toxin’.

Here's a break down: both ‘toxins’ and ‘toxicants’ can be ‘toxic’; ‘toxic’ is the adjective used to describe both of these nouns when they are present in concentrations causing adverse reactions.  Substances produced by poisonous plants, for example, such as the photosensitizing compounds in the sap of Giant hogweed, are toxins.  Very rarely are these discussed in mainstream environmental media. 

What it usually means: Rather, it is bisphenol A in baby bottles and the glyphosphate in popular herbicides that are too commonly incorrectly referred to as ‘toxins’, despite their anthropogenic, not biological, origin. 

Why this is a problem: Because it's wrong. Now you know. Tell your friends. 

2. Biodegradable

Example: “This plastic bag is 100% biodegradable.”

What it is supposed to mean: Having the ability to decompose through the actions of organisms such as bacteria, or by other natural means.

What is usually means: A term used to make people feel less guilty about our overconsumption of plastic and other petroleum-based and/or otherwise environmentally durable products that are resistant to breaking down.

Why this is a problem: Very few regulations exist surrounding requirements for official ‘biodegradable’ status. Although it is generally accepted that biodegradable products is better than their conventional alternatives (though this has been contested), the focus shifts from waste reduction and elimination at its roots to the continued production of waste that has slightly less environmental impact. Biodegradable products thus still end up in landfills and continue to contaminate recycling streams. 

Another issue is that the degree to which a product is biodegradable depends almost exclusively on environmental surroundings. These products require optimal temperatures, humidity, and bacterial conditions to properly degrade. Biodegradable plastics are still capable of releasing harmful greenhouse gases in landfills, should they end up there. It is apparent that there are many unresolved issues surrounding use of the term ‘biodegradable’, potentially leading to unintended environmental consequences and a false sense of eco-support.

1. Sustainability 

also see: sustainable ­­____________ [insert virtually any word here: development, seafood, buildings, communities, purchasing, design, agriculture, investments...the list goes on].

What it is supposed to mean: Considering the term ‘sustainable’ (and its derivatives) have become the leading environmental adjectives of our time, it seems necessary to consult the dictionary on this one:

sustainable |səˈstānəbəl|


1 able to be maintained at a certain rate or level: sustainable fusion reactions.

2 conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources: our fundamental commitment to sustainable development.

What it usually means: Anything with a less than absolutely devastating environmental impact.

Why this is a problem: I think that many neglect the ‘maintenance’ aspect of this term.  Sustainability does not simply mean doing something that is a slightly eco-friendly alternative, or something that does not (intentionally) harm the environment, but rather a process that can be maintained over time or space without any adverse impacts on not just the environment, but also within the economic, governance, and the social realm.  

You’ll notice that I haven’t provided alternative terms for these terms.  Why not? Because we need to stop the cycle of – for lack of a better term – laziness.  An alternative phrase today is almost certain to become another overused term down the line.

Let’s start explaining exactly what we are trying to communicate – qualitatively and quantitatively. We need to focus more on how sustainability/adaptive management/environmental innovation will be achieved. Instead of simply announcing a switch to ‘sustainable purchasing’, let’s describe how modifying supply management practices will help to uphold acceptable levels of economic, environmental, and social status. Rather than making reference to a ‘resilient ecosystem’, let’s expand on the unique features and specific processes that make it so.

This also serves as a useful reminder to us all to be wary of these buzzwords. Is a cafe promoting sustainable coffee because it falls under the definition of the term, or is it a stretch from the truth, used to manipulate their oh-so-valuable customers and elevate the price a few bucks just for their own profit? Ask questions. Be curious. And look out for catchy eco-terms – they’re not sustainable. 

(See what I did there?)