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Marketing and Comms
Bridging the Sustainability Trust Gap in a Climate-Challenged World

Despite growing corporate efforts to drive sustainable change and climate action, there’s an underlying issue: a lack of consumer trust towards companies’ claims on this front.

Around the world, major environmental events and extreme weather conditions have pushed climate change to top of mind for people worldwide. According to iStock and Getty ImagesVisualGPS research, “climate change” ranks top of the list of concerns for individuals across the globe — higher than inflation, the energy crises, or issues surrounding world peace.

However, there is still a general sense of ambiguity on who is accountable for driving forward actions to combat climate risks — is it the government? Big businesses? Or are individuals most responsible? Our insights tell us people globally believe it is a shared responsibility; yet each actor’s expectations seem to be first on others, rather than on themselves.

Historically, across different industries, ad campaigns have promoted the idea of individual responsibility. We are used to seeing visuals highlighting individual sustainable practices — from recycling to biking to using reusable shopping bags. All of these concepts, mostly driven by brands and policies, reinforce the idea that sustainability is an individual responsibility.

On the other hand, as VisualGPS found, individuals believe that government is the primary agent responsible for dealing with sustainability efforts and environmental concerns related to global climate change; and that businesses are as responsible as individuals for protecting the planet and enacting sustainable practices.

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Since the first UN Climate Change Conference held in 1995, people have been able to follow some countries’ governments' progress in dealing with climate change issues, while also seeing how corporate philanthropy evolved into impactful CSR programs. Today, 7 out of 10 individuals around the globe believe they have made a lot of progress toward living a more environmentally sustainable life, VisualGPS found.

Nonetheless, despite all involved agents taking part in making a change — denoting a high level of climate awareness — there’s an underlying issue yet to be solved: VisualGPS also revealed a lack of consumer trust towards companies’ claims on this front. More than 80 percent of consumers believe products are made to seem environmentally friendlier than they are, followed by distrust of products that are labeled ''environmentally friendly'' as a marketing ploy; and they believe companies claim they abide by ESG (Environmental, social, and governance) standards but do not show enough evidence for it.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer reported an average five-to-one margin of respondents who want businesses to play a bigger, not smaller, role in addressing climate change. The same research found respondents have low trust in the government; in contrast, businesses continue to gain trust around the world and are the sole institution seen as competent and ethical — showing companies are uniquely positioned to bridge the sustainability trust gap, fill the void left by governments, and showcase the invaluable role they play in addressing climate change.

When it comes to deciding which company to use or buy from, 84 percent of people believe it is important that a company uses sustainable business practices and extends these to their products; yet more than half claim it's too much work to research what brands are actively doing to mitigate climate risks. Knowing most consumers make purchase decisions based on visual content — and also expect brands to take a public stand and drive real action on social and environmental issues — companies and brands can lean on better visuals to tell their sustainability story and make their efforts known to engage with consumers.

Regularly, visuals related to environmentalism and sustainability rely on familiar visual clichés — think, the lone polar bear or hands cupping a sapling — unimaginatively used to convey environmental issues. Many brands also focus on conceptual images and videos that are too abstract to stand out or resonate in a crowded visual landscape. Instead, businesses could focus on large-scale (often policy-backed) visuals — such as actions in the realm of infrastructure, renewable energy, agriculture, water conservation, or management of green spaces — imagery representing topics and initiatives that could transcend the barrier of practices often seen as greenwashing.

As the climate crisis accelerates, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about what is sustainable; how our decisions, products and policies impact the environment; who is responsible — and whether or not they trust corporate and government sustainability claims. In turn, businesses should look to visual images and messaging that rise to the occasion.