Know your sustainable terms.

By Lauren Phillips
April 17, 2020
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With climate change and sustainability on everyone’s mind these days, there are a lot of new phrases and sustainable terms to know. (Before the coronavirus crisis there was the climate change crisis, and neither seems to be going away any time soon.)

From zero waste to green cleaning products, there are a lot of sustainable terms to know. There are even some emerging ones: Meet plastic neutral. You may know carbon neutral and plastic-free—as in companies that rightfully boast about their carbon neutral or plastic-free production or supply chains—but plastic neutral might just be the new sustainable buzzword for companies looking to help protect the environment.

“We expect that this is something you’ll be hearing more about as awareness grows around this particular solution towards plastic reduction,” says Danielle Jezienicki, the director of sustainability at Grove Collaborative, which prides itself on being the only plastic neutral online retailer in the world.

Plastic neutral is when a company (or an individual) recovers and recycles the same amount of plastic it uses. It’s unlike plastic-free, when a company uses no plastic, in that a plastic neutral commitment acknowledges that a company uses plastic and then takes action to appropriately recycle the same amount of plastic.

In March, Grove Collaborative announced a new commitment to becoming 100 percent plastic-free by 2025, an initiative that takes plastic reduction a step further. Realistically, Jezienicki says, going plastic-free likely means that a company’s products are about 95 percent free from plastic because of supply chain issues and production limitations, but that’s still an enormous reduction of plastic waste.

And now carbon neutral: Unlike plastic neutral or plastic-free, carbon neutral centers around carbon dioxide emissions, not physical plastic consumption. Carbon neutral means a business has calculated the carbon dioxide emissions associated with every phase of production, delivery, and use of its product or service and either found a carbon neutral way to power it—think renewable energy—or purchased carbon offsets to remove that same amount of carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Carbon offsets can be everything from forest conservation to greenhouse gas reduction.

Carbon neutral, plastic neutral, and plastic-free are all different methods of reaching the same goal: reducing a business’ impact on the environment. For that reason, Jezienicki says it’s important to consider how companies you know and love are doing their part to curb climate change, but shopping only plastic or carbon neutral or plastic-free companies will prove difficult. “There is no perfect company,” she says. “I would encourage [people] to prioritize brands that openly acknowledge their contributions to protecting our planet.”

A company may not be plastic-free or carbon neutral, but if it’s making strides to move away from harmful industry practices and working on sustainability programs that support the company and consumers, it’s likely worth supporting. “Sustainability is complicated and certifications are confusing,” Jezienicki says. “However, educating yourself on the basic inputs and outputs of your favorite brands will make you a more educated consumer.”

With plenty of time at home with which to research sustainability efforts—now’s your chance to become a smarter shopper for Planet Earth.