Language barrier: Shoppers don’t understand common green claims, survey reveals

Nine in ten of those polled said it is important for businesses to talk to the general public about their environmental sustainability work. But the survey, conducted by Fleet Street and Trajectory Partnership, found a disconnect between the language used by businesses and that used by customers.

While three-quarters of survey respondents had heard the term ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable’ in relation to businesses, only a quarter felt they could confidently offer up a definition.

Most also said they did not thoroughly understand what a brand meant when it described itself, or a product, as ‘green’. ‘Eco’ and ‘conscious’ were found to have even lower levels of confidence in understanding.

An awareness-understanding gap was also found in relation to more specific terms about carbon emissions. Six in ten had seen businesses use the term ‘net-zero’, rising to almost seven in ten for ‘carbon-neutral’. Yet only 11% felt confident in their understanding of carbon offsetting, which most brands and businesses will need to use to some extent to achieve net-zero or carbon neutrality.

Among those who had seen businesses use ‘net-zero’ or ‘carbon-offsetting’, the perception of the term was only slightly positive.

Levels of awareness and understanding were even lower around the terms ‘biodiversity’, ‘traceability and ‘the circular economy’.

Fleet Street co-founder Mark Stretton said: The lack of understanding around what many businesses would probably consider to be standard terms, such as net-zero and environmentally friendly, is striking, and indicates a level of disconnect between brands and consumers.

“Many businesses are investing very heavily in sustainability, setting ambitious objectives in the process, but there is a big piece missing; there’s massive work to be done on the language used, and the more consumers understand, the more likely they are to positively engage with, and respond to what is clearly an enormous issue.”

The circular economy conundrum

‘The circular economy’ was found to be the least well-known or meaningfully understood claim assessed in the survey. Less than one-fifth of respondents had ever seen the term used in the private sector, and only 4% felt certain of what it means.

This was despite the fact that ‘recyclable’ was the most widely recognised term, with eight in ten respondents seeing it used regularly and the majority able to offer a robust definition. Awareness and understanding was similarly high for ‘single-use plastic’.

These terms were evenly recognised and understood by those with different levels of education and income, whereas most other terms assessed were less understood by those on lower incomes and/or without a university education.

Across all demographics, people said they would feel more positively about a business communicating recyclability and a reduction in single-use plastics.

It bears noting that recycling and the circular economy are not synonyms. A truly circular economy prioritises reuse of materials in their highest possible value above recycling and, in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition, also includes the restoration of nature.

On nature, half of those polled had never seen a business use the term ‘biodiversity’, and almost nine in ten were uncertain of its definition.

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Comments (1)

  1. Ian Byrne says:

    It’s probably far to say that many businesses don’t understand the terms they use either. In some cases it may be done cynically, or because the marketing department has picked up that a product is less environmentally damaging than before. so slaps on a green or eco label. Or it may be that they have bought in services from a consultant who has – accurately or not – told the business that they can use a specific label or description.
    The International Organization for Standardization, ISO, is trying to bring some rigour to Net Zero and Carbon Neutral claims. Its IWA 42 set out requirements for Net Zero in 2022, and last year published a full standard (ISO 14068-1) for carbon neutrality. Essentially, it saw the latter as being on a reduction/removal pathway to net zero (although it shied away from using the term) plus offsetting current emissions.

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