More and more Americans are seeking information about corporate social and environmental responsibility, particularly from news coverage, according to the ninth annual Sense & Sustainability® Study, released Wednesday by G&S Business Communications. The opinion poll was conducted online by YouGov for G&S in August 2018 among 2,659 U.S. adults.
Sharp reversals in key trends indicate not only a stronger public appetite for knowledge about business responsibility and sustainability, but also that the public isn’t buying into rhetoric about “fake news” and continues to believe in the integrity of trusted news sources for information on business, government and the best and worst practices of both. Among the notable findings of the poll:
- Half of Americans (49 percent) rely on news media, a spike from last year (43 percent in 2017, which marked the five-year low)
- For the fourth consecutive year, the news media remains the top source, ahead of word-of-mouth (34 percent), social media and blogs (33 percent).
- Significantly fewer Americans (25 percent) are staying uninformed (down from 32 percent in 2017)
- There is a five-year peak among those who read sustainability reports (18 percent in 2018, up from earlier highs of 16 percent in both 2017 and 2014)
The public seems to have been galvanized into awareness by a number of recent, high-profile crises, examples of which include the 2014 contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan; the 2016 controversy over EpiPen pricing, and the 2018 racism incident that led to anti-bias training for Starbucks employees. Specific perceptions indicate signs of both progress and setbacks in terms of trust in public and private sector agencies:
- When comparing their current views to those from five years ago, 3 in 5 Americans (60 percent) are equally or more confident that employers promoting workplace diversity and inclusion are likely to attract the best talent.
- Less than 1 in 5 people (19 percent) feel certain they can safely drink the water in Flint, Michigan.
- More than three-quarters (77 percent) do not feel sure they can obtain pharmaceutical products at fair prices.
“Amid spasms of upheaval that test public trust in institutions to protect people and the environment, Americans are demanding harder evidence in the form of facts and figures to inform their decisions and actions,” said Ron Loch, G&S managing director and sustainability consulting leader. “As the U.S. midterm elections approach, it will be critical to weigh public skepticism about government accountability in emergencies. Scrutiny of corporate culture also has intensified among Americans, as seen in their position favoring business adoption of diversity and inclusive practices. Business communicators who are stewards of corporate reputations and brand value must heed the urgent call from stakeholders for more intelligent, respectful discourse with those who vote with their wallets, ballots and efforts at work.”
As last year’s report found a considerable increase in the number of Americans placing greater responsibility on government, businesses and themselves to serve as environmental and social stewards — with a majority believing the public and government bear the greatest responsibility for keeping society and nature safe along the supply chain — this year showed weakening confidence in the accountability of government, and the likelihood that it will shield people and the planet from harm. When asked to compare their perceptions from five years ago:
- Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) are less confident or outright uncertain about elected officials promising action beyond thoughts and prayers after a public emergency or natural disaster.
- There is a similar mix of eroding confidence and general uncertainty among nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) regarding government protection of the environment and its responsible use of natural resources.
- Most Americans (56 percent) are increasingly skeptical that government will hold accountable businesses that do not protect the privacy of consumer data.
Along with the public’s increasing doubts about the likelihood of government to advocate for and protect the environment, found by G&S, the 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Climate Change Snapshot — released last week — revealed they also have doubts about their own power in that area: Less than four-in-10 (38 percent) said they feel their actions can make a real difference in eliminating threats related to climate change. 58 percent said that in the absence of government progress, they are looking to business to take the lead.