This article looks into various definitions of the word green in sustainability.

green bean

Words are powerful. They can inspire a nation to greatness or lead them towards darkness. Ideally, we would have a fixed sustainability lexicon, where individuals would be free to use terms and those terms would be widely understood. But when it comes to the word green, it is very hard to define what it actually means.

A great resource in this regard comes on page 19 of Patrick Moore’s book Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout. He states that:

At its worst, green is a shameless marketing slogan, used to promote various products and services as environmentally friendly. Yet it is a useful term, a way of distinguishing relatively damaging technologies from ones that have less impact, if it is used objectively.”

Patrick goes on to conclude that:

Green is more of a political or marketing term than a scientific one and therefore refrain from using it when renewable, sustainable, or clean will do. If asked what green means to me, I would say it must pass the test of being sustainable and clean.

Patrick’s contribution is a welcome one, as the former co-founder of Greenpeace, he should certainly know something about the word green and its use in mass communication. His analysis is that it must be used objectively, and that ‘green’ products or services must pass other tests to justify their environmental credentials.

I came across the shades of green framework by CICERO recently and I thought it was really interesting. It should make it easier to decipher between projects that are green and projects that are not. You can find the framework below.

CICERO is Norway’s foremost institute for interdisciplinary climate research. Their opinions are graded dark green, medium green and light green to offer investors better insight into the environmental quality of green bonds.


Bonds that they flag as dark green must go towards financing projects that are aligned with a long-term low carbon future. This includes projects such as wind energy.

Those that they flag as medium green represent a half-way house towards a long-term low carbon future and includes projects such as hybrid busses. These are more sustainable than regular busses, but not quite as sustainable as fully battery powered busses.

Bonds that they flag as light green are projects that are environmentally friendly, but not attached to a long-term vision. This includes projects such as efficiency for fossil fuel infrastructure. These are better than nothing, but do not decouple development from its ties to fossil fuels.

Those that they flag as brown are the last category. These do not deserve the banner of green at all, as they are in opposition to a long-term low carbon future. This would include new infrastructure for fossil fuels, especially coal.

Whilst there is a lot to like about the CICERO shades of green framework, there are still things left unanswered. This includes the fact that green is being used to describe innovations like wind turbines and solar panels, even though they are made from non-renewable materials and often require fossil fuels to create them. The fact that the shades of green framework exists at all shows that there is a spectrum of projects that can be described as ‘green’ with varying degrees of sustainability.

What you need to know

This article looked into various definitions of the word green in sustainability.

We looked at the analysis of Patrick Moore, who personally doesn’t use the term, because of its lack of specificity.

We looked at the CICERO shades of green framework which can be used to rank the projects that green bonds fund from dark green to brown.

Overall, I don’t think the word green is a particularly useful term. It is far too vague and lacks any real meaning.

Clearly green when used in the context of sustainability is being used to describe a product or service that confers some sort of social or environmental benefit. But, it is in that window of uncertainty that unscrupulous businesses will use greenwashing to oversell the benefits of their offering.

Companies pronouncements of how green their projects or initiatives are should therefore be treated with caution, until you can verify what additional sustainable benefits are involved.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What does the word green mean to you?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


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