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Sustainability Glossary for a Greener Planet

Your guide to environmental buzzwords and important ideas to help restore our world

We have created a sustainability glossary for you! In the world of sustainability, there is no shortage of buzzwords. Even the term sustainability is often overused and misunderstood. When terms become extremely popular, it's a good indicator that there is enthusiasm for what they represent. However, popularity can come at a price—confusion, misuse, abuse, and dilution of their meaning.

At Plant With Purpose, we honor the complexity of the critical issues of environmental restoration and poverty alleviation. These aren’t simple problems, so careful communication is important. We hope to equip you with knowledge and understanding to help you better navigate the conversations around sustainability and the environment, so you can be a strong advocate. Use this sustainability glossary to gain more knowledge into the meaning of terms used these days.

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is to maintain agricultural productivity over the long term while minimizing environmental harm and preserving resources for at least twenty future generations. It is distinct from regenerative agriculture, which seeks not only to maintain but also actively restore ecosystems and soil health. Plant With Purpose’s Seeds of Change curriculum is a sustainable agriculture curriculum, though calling it a regenerative agriculture or agroecology curriculum would be even more accurate. Thus the need for a sustainability glossary like this to navigate the terminology with greater understanding.

Soil Conservation

Soil conservation refers to a suite of techniques designed to reduce soil erosion. Some of the most common examples involve creating barriers that dampen the impact of rainfall and reduce soil run-off. Some examples of this can include rock barriers or living barriers (plants/grasses/trees). Other soil conservation strategies that are common in Plant With Purpose’s programs include contour canals, living fences, gully plugs, water harvesting techniques, green manures, and others.

It’s important to note that this is distinct from the term conservation agriculture. Those refer to agricultural techniques that are meant to mimic forest soils in agriculture. Conservation agriculture has three distinct principles that not all soil conservation methods may include.

The sustainability glossary found here helps you understand what these people are doing for the earth


Afforestation is simply the practice of planting trees on land that has never supported forests or perhaps gone a long amount of time without being forested. This is distinct from reforestation which plants in areas that were previously forested.

Without careful consideration to the exact area of land, afforestation may introduce environmental threats. When a new forest replaces an existing ecosystem, it can result in a reduction of biodiversity.


In contrast to afforestation, reforestation takes place on land that was once forest that has since been desertified or degraded. The goal of reforestation is to restore the previously forested land. There are a variety of techniques that can support this goal, including planting trees or allowing for natural regeneration over time.

Early Successional Species

The process of restoring an ecosystem to health may require several steps, especially when transitioning from barren and extremely degraded land to a more stable and diverse ecosystem. As a part of this process, early successional species may be used.

These are species that have a demonstrated ability to adapt to harsh conditions, while helping land transition toward health. Fast-growing trees like grevillea may be a part of this strategy. In the long run, some of these species may be less advantageous for a healthy ecosystem but can accelerate the process of restoration.

Naturalized Species

Naturalized species are non-native species which have become integrated in local ecosystems. 

It is common for these to be species that were introduced decades or even centuries ago and now interact in equilibrium. Many local people may have integrated a use of these species into their lives and culture, and many communities will consider them to be native species, despite having origins elsewhere.


Agroecology is a holistic approach that emphasizes Indigenous knowledge, small-scale farming, and social and economic equity. It involves incorporating ecological principles into agriculture, and often includes techniques like polyculture, agroforestry, crop diversity, and the use of natural predators for pest control. 

The Plant With Purpose Seeds of Change curriculum can be referred to accurately as an agroecology curriculum, though some audiences might be more familiar with the label “regenerative agriculture,” which refers to methods that regenerate the land instead of degrading it. Usually involving no till methods of planting, crop rotation, cover crops, and often incorporating livestock.

Raster Data

Plant With Purpose relies on remote sensing tools in order to evaluate the effectiveness of its environmental restoration. Remote sensing allows us to collect information about an area without direct contact, often through image data collected from satellites, airplanes, and drones.

Raster data represents information through images with pixels. Pixels may serve as a unit of measurement for values like elevation or reflection of light. Through GIS software evaluation, this can then inform our monitoring and evaluation of the impact of your investment.

Difference-in-Differences (DID)

In order to ensure that change in a watershed or community can be attributed to your investment in Plant With Purpose, we compare these changes over time against changes in a comparison group.

The comparison group is one that is very similar to the target group, except for having received Plant With Purpose’s program. This approach of measuring the difference between changes over time for both groups helps us identify the outcomes of our work.

Soil Health

Healthy soil is not dirt. It is the most richly biodiverse environment on our planet. Soil health refers to the status of the soil on an area of land. This is broader than soil quality, which may look at the soil composition at a closer level, or soil fertility, which evaluates soil through its ability to support crop growth. Soil health instead looks at the quality of one’s soil through a lens of whole ecosystem health.

When farmers in Plant With Purpose’s program tend to their soil, they are stewarding a core component of a complex ecosystem. They do so with the understanding that healthy soil can contribute towards greater biodiversity, farm sustainability, and productivity across the entire watershed ecosystem. Who knew such simple, back to the earth practices, would require a sustainability glossary to fully understand.

Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR)

Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is a methodology for reforestation and ecosystem restoration that works with natural processes. This is a method of growing trees rather than planting trees. 

Seed or roots that are already in the soil are allowed to grow and the farmer may manage those for vegetation competition, or through pruning and thinning depending on farmer goals. FMNR was established in Australia by Tony Rinuado at World Vision and has been widely successful in West Africa and globally. It can be cheaper, faster, and offer greater diversity than tree planting.

break out your sustainability glossary to fully understand what he is doing

Biointensive agriculture (BIA)

Biointensive agriculture techniques are typically used in backyard agriculture that integrate high levels of compost, mulching, repellant plants, and nutrient recycling. BIA helps produce a high volume of crops in a small space, which is valuable in settings where the cultivation space available for farmers is limited. This technique is especially popular in Plant With Purpose’s Tanzania program and in practice is often called a “kitchen garden.”

We hope this sustainability glossary is helpful to you in many ways and many conversations with others.

About Plant With Purpose: Plant With Purpose is a leading Christian environmental organization and is dedicated to reversing deforestation and poverty by transforming the lives of rural farmers. Applying a 100% locally-led, Community Designed Restoration©  model, over the past 40 years Plant With Purpose’s integrated solutions have resulted in more than a half million people reversing their poverty,  60 million+ trees planted, and 2.7 million acres of land being restored or protected. With local programs in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Haiti, Malawi, Mexico, Tanzania, and Thailand, Plant With Purpose has a global team of more than 500. For more information about Plant With Purpose and its mission, please visit

About the Author

Plant With Purpose seeks to restore hope by reversing two of the world’s greatest challenges: global poverty and environmental damage. These problems are interconnected.

Our goal is to see creation’s life-giving regenerative cycles restored and people renewed through their relationship to God, living in healthy sufficiency and empowered to dream.

We operate in eight countries around the world. Our international work is 100% locally-led, with global offices operating both as independent agencies within their country, and alliance partners with Plant With Purpose U.S., which supports their ongoing work.

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