Grow your green vocabulary

There’s quite a bit of jargon in every industry, and the green industry is no different. Here’s a dictionary to help you tackle some of the more unwieldy terms and acronyms you’ll see in this issue’s stories and other places.


Vegetable or plant oil that can be substituted for gasoline in modified diesel engines. Used cooking oil from restaurants, often free, is a popular choice.

Carbon footprint

The amount of carbon dioxide you produce during daily activities. Not only through basic things like driving, showering and heating your home, but the energy that goes into every product you use (how they’re made, how far they’re shipped, percentage of recyclable materials, etc.), from the food you eat to the DVDs you watch to the toothbrush you use.

Carbon offsets

What you buy to ease your guilt about your carbon footprint. You can get them from any number of companies, who promise to invest your money in renewable energy and other carbon-reducing infrastructure. Problem is, there are no laws to ensure the companies actually do this, so do your homework. Critics argue that carbon offsets are a profit-driven misdirection that people use to avoid addressing the real issue — reducing their own carbon footprint.


The process of allowing organic waste to decompose, rather than throwing it away.

You can compost much of your own household waste using anything from a prepared bucket with worms to a slick indoor composting robot. If done right, it yields remarkably rich soil for gardens, planters or other uses.


Refers to products that have fewer environmental impacts — created with fewer resources and chemicals, biodegradable, recyclable, etc. — than their conventional counterparts.

Energy Star

A government program that sets energy-efficiency standards for a variety of consumer products, from water-heaters to televisions. Builders can also apply for the certification for new homes if they meet certain heating, lighting and other standards.

Fair Trade

A system that pays international producers (often in developing countries) fair prices and wages for making products like coffee, tea, wine, clothing, crafts and other goods. It can also include emphasis on sustainable growing methods and land-use practices. It’s intended to empower producers in building self-supporting businesses. It’s also a social movement that helps poor countries develop infrastructure, educates producers and consumers on trade, and advocates for worldwide equitable policy and practices.

Geothermal heating

Utilizing the Earth’s natural processes to generate heat. Geothermal heating for a home often includes a system that pumps a refrigerated liquid through pipes installed deep in the ground. The liquid is heated by the ground’s natural temperatures, and pumped back into the house. The systems, while expensive to install, can cut heating and cooling bills by more than half.

Green fatigue

The irritation that ensues when everyone from the, ahem, media to your well-intentioned-but-kind-of-annoying friend who won’t stop talking about green this and green that. Not to be confused with “green jubilation,” which we expect you’ll experience after finishing this issue.

Green washing

Applied to companies that exaggerate or misrepresent the environmental benefits of their products, services or philosophies.

Hybrid vehicle

Any vehicle powered by both gasoline and a second fuel source (most commonly a battery), like the new Metro Transit buses. The second fuel source typically powers the vehicle during idling and at lower speeds, saving significant gas.


There’s no true definition for what it means to eat, shop or buy local. Some folks define it by geographic boundaries; others define it more generally as products that support local economies and communities, through production, sales, job creation, and other impacts. The word’s expansiveness allows you to create your own definition, so if you’re curious about something labeled “local,” the best thing to do is simply ask where it came from and make your decision.


LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A builder can achieve one of four LEED certifications — certified, silver, gold or platinum — based on a point system that tallies use of sustainable materials, efficiency of electricity, heat and water, and other factors. The program is run by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, and has some of the strictest and most comprehensive green building requirements in the country. Building to LEED requirements raises project costs (sometimes in the six figures for gold and platinum certification of commercial buildings) but can save significant money in the long run through reduced energy costs.


Someone who commits to eating only locally produced food.

Off the grid

A building that isn’t connected to outside electricity sources and instead generates all of its power from self-owned wind turbines, solar panels or other renewable sources.


A diffuse and complex term that broadly refers to food produced with no synthetic fertilizers or chemicals. Food can be certified as organic by the USDA (see “USDA labels” entry below) or other certified inspectors. In the case of meat, animals eat only organic feed and must be raised in healthy environments, though conventional farm groups have lobbied Congress heavily in recent years to reduce standards, particularly related to making animal feed and care optional requirements.

It’s also worth noting that many small farmers grow organic but eschew the complicated USDA approval process (which is expensive and can take three years or more), opting instead to sell directly at farmers’ markets, restaurants, co-ops and other vendors they build personal relationships with.


Any behavior that preserves, rather than depletes, resources for future generations.

USDA labeling

The USDA labels are tricky: “100 percent organic” means what is says; “organic” means a product can include up to 5 percent of nonorganic ingredients; and “made with organic ingredients” means the product contains a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients.

Zero waste

Generating no landfill waste by using only reusable and compostable materials.