Survey: 7 in 10 Brits don’t believe environmental claims by businesses are credible

Just 19% of those polled said they found ‘green’ product descriptions on adverts or products reassuring

Conducted by consultancy Sensu Insight, the survey polled 1,682 adults across the UK. The survey was conducted in October 2022 and the results have been published this week.

Survey respondents were asked whether they trust businesses when they mention their environmental initiatives or the environmental impact of their products or services. Just 19% of those polled said they found ‘green’ product descriptions reassuring and just 23% of them said they take all of these claims at face value – meaning that more than three-quarters are, to some degree, sceptical.

Only a minority of people surveyed (14%) said they do not believe any claims from any business. This means that the majority of people believe there could be some truth in the claims, but are wary of tactics such as exaggeration, omitting important information and failing to gain independent, third-party verification.

Almost one-third (30%) of those surveyed said they expect most environmental claims from businesses and brands to be “slightly exaggerated”. 71% assume that most claims are probably not checked by an independent party. These perceptions undermine the perceived credibility of claims.

The survey found that consumers are more sceptical of green claims by businesses in some sectors than others. The most trusted sectors were supermarkets, food and drink and energy, while scepticism was highest when people are faced with adverts from airlines, holiday companies, car manufacturers and fashion brands.

Regarding airlines and holiday providers, the report acknowledges that the suing of Dutch airline KLM by environmental groups over claims made in its adverts this summer has been a high-profile case, likely impacting customer perceptions of the airline and sector across Europe.

The vast majority of people surveyed – 93% – said they had seen what they believed to be an example of greenwashing within the last month. The most common complaint concerned claims that a product or service was ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’ or similar, with no facts or figures to back this assertation up. One-quarter said they have reduced the amount of money they spend with a brand or company in the past year due to greenwashing concerns.

Sensu Insight’s managing director Steve Leigh said:  “The result of our survey reveals a society sceptical of the motivations of businesses. We are increasingly living in a cynical age where accusations of ‘fake news’ make us more likely to question everything that we hear.

“When such suspicions are amplified through social media, it can feel like every ‘fact’ is being challenged and undermined. This makes genuine ESG initiatives and claims particularly hard to communicate effectively.”

Avoiding ‘greenhushing’

The report acknowledges that, to avoid greenwashing accusations, some brands and businesses may feel compelled not to communicate as much about their environmental plans. This practice is known as ‘greenhushing’.

Businesses may wish to avoid boycotts, increased staff turnover and reputational risk.

But the survey found that 86% of UK adults want to see more transparency from businesses on their environmental impacts, initiatives and targets.

Sensu Insight is advising businesses not to stop communicating. Leigh said: “If businesses are to convey authenticity and launch a new sustainability initiative effectively, they need to communicate with transparency and honesty. Ensuring that all messaging is consistent and backed by independent evidence is important. This is most likely to gain the trust of the public and other organisations.

“The most effective communications are also often reinforced by authoritative experts and reflected throughout all of the organisation’s operations.

“Finally, it is crucial to listen carefully to how stakeholders respond, taking on board and adapting to areas of improvement.”

Research published by South Pole last year revealed a trend towards greenhushing around corporate climate targets. Covering 1,200 large businesses with net-zero targets, that research found that one in four (26%) of the companies who had applied to the Science Based Targets Initiative had not published information about the new targets on their own websites or reports. This trend was particularly pronounced in heavy-emitting industries, with a significant minority (24%) of companies only publishing the climate milestones that are mandated at a national level.

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