Demystifying climate language

26 Jun 2024
4 min read
Dictionary definition environment

Understanding the language of climate change and what different words and phrases mean can be confusing.

A study found only a quarter of people questioned understood what the term ‘sustainable’ meant.

There are a lot of terms brands and companies can use that can greenwash consumers into thinking they’re making climate pledges or cutting down their emissions when they might not be.

Greenwashing in itself is when brands mislead or misinform consumers into thinking they’ve got an environmentally friendly public image when they might be selling a very harmful product. It could be they use a tree logo or something similar to project a greener brand. Some organisations are just lying!

Who to talk to about misinformation concerns

Organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority 020 7492 2222 and the Competitions and Markets Authority will clamp down on greenwashing, but there are no specific laws protecting environmental claims companies may make.

You can speak to Ofcom about TV and Radio: 0300 123 3333. The BBC has its own complaints department: 03700 100 222. And you can complain to IPSO about newspapers and publications: Complaints form ( 0300 123 2220.

These organisations are there to protect viewers and listeners and the public from falling prey to false advertising in whatever shape or guise it comes in.

Research reveals just how confusing it all is

A study recently found the British public have a low level of understanding environmental language too.

The study, conducted by the insights company Trajectory and the communications agency Fleet Street found only a quarter of people questioned understood what the term ‘sustainable’ meant. It means making something in such a way that it has little impact on the environment.

The study also found terms like “environmentally friendly” and “locally grown” weren’t understood by all consumers either. Environmentally friendly means something either isn’t harmful to the environment or is trying to help it. Locally grown means it’s grown and harvested close to where you live, but terms like “locally sourced” could mean it’s been sourced by someone locally but could have travelled a long way so it’s always best to ask in the shop you’re buying in if you’re not sure.

Climate dictionaries exist online

As consumers, we should know what we’re contributing to or aiding with our purchases.

The United Nations Development Program have developed a dictionary

For example, reaching net zero means no longer contributing to global warming so the amount of greenhouse gases (pollution such as carbon dioxide that traps the suns heat) produced is equal to or lower than the amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere through activities such as tree planting etc.

There’s a lot there to wade through but as consumers, we should know what we’re contributing to or aiding with our purchases and we shouldn’t be duped into thinking something is safer or greener than it is just by some clever wording or colours of a logo.

Unfortunately though, understanding the definitions is only half the battle because there are so many intentionally misleading adverts out there.

I saw an advert recently that championed “sustainable expeditions” and ‘free flights’ to the Antarctic. There was no clarification on what “sustainable” meant and the Antarctic is one of the most pristine environments on the planet so any tourism is harmful and flying is one of the worst choices for contributing to climate change.

The study also found policies put in place by the government on reducing waste weren’t understood and less than half of those questioned were confident in describing what single use plastics are – which are plastic items like carrier bags or plastic cutlery that are used once and then thrown away.

Polls show over 80 per cent of us care about climate change – no matter our age, voting intention or income, so understanding environmental language to avoid ‘traps’ is important.

It’s not all bad news

It’s worth mentioning it’s not all bad news though – the study found younger people have a better understanding of climate language and as they’re the ones who’ll be around the longest that’s got to be a good thing.

Those aged between 18 and 24 were 24 percent more likely to understand the word ‘sustainability’ than those aged over 65 so if you’re struggling to get your head around a term and you can’t find it in the climate dictionary, asking someone younger may help or social media.

Most environmentalists are passionate about education so feel free to Ask Angela here


The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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