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Marketing and Comms
Report Highlights Sustainability Language Barrier Between Business, Consumers

“This puts the onus firmly on brands to properly educate consumers so that awareness and understanding of major climate-related terms are increased across the board.” — Paul Flatters, founder/CEO, Trajectory

New research from insights firm Trajectory and UK-based communications agency Fleet Street reveals that consumer understanding of some of the most common terms that businesses use when communicating about sustainability is worryingly low.

The Language of Sustainability, which surveyed 1,000 UK adults, reveals that just 11 percent of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of the term “carbon offsetting” — despite it being one of the primary methods that businesses rely on to hit their net-zero goals.

For another term that has been widely adopted by brands, “circular economy,” just 4 percent of consumers polled claiming to be confident in defining it — indicating a clear language barrier between businesses and consumers.

A handful of much more widely used terms fared better: 25 percent of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of “green” and “sustainability” (26 percent); with percentages improving for “organic” (32 percent), “environmentally friendly” (35 percent), “locally grown/seasonal” (40 percent) and “recycling” (55 percent); and a surprising 59 percent say they understand “net zero.”

Despite widespread media coverage and recent legislation banning the use of “single-use plastics,” only 47 percent of consumers are confident at defining what that term means — indicating a further level of disconnect between consumers and businesses.

“While many businesses and brands are taking critical action to tackle the environmental crisis, it is clear from this research that communication is key and much more work needs to be done to engage consumers, starting with the language used — as a significant amount of it doesn’t appear to mean much to them,” says Fleet Street co-founder Mark Stretton.

“The lack of understanding around what many businesses would probably consider to be standard terms is striking. 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, generational issue.”

The data show a clear correlation between understanding and favorability, as the terms that consumers feel the most positive about — recycling, single-use plastic, and locally sourced/grown — are also the most widely understood.

The analysis indicates that Gen Z (18- to 24-year-olds) are more confident when it comes to understanding what these key terms mean. For example, “sustainability” was understood by 24 percent more consumers from the 18-24 age group compared to consumers aged 65+ — confirming that younger generations are .

When taking education into consideration, those with higher levels of education have greater confidence in their understanding of key terms. For example, “circular economy” was understood by 11 percent more consumers who have a university degree or higher compared to those without. Interestingly, the term was understood by 30 percent more consumers who are still in formal education compared to older consumers who left education after secondary school — which suggests that there is a greater understanding amongst pupils now than in previous generations.

Despite the confusion around some of the key terms, the data reveal the importance of effective communication: 90 percent of consumers think it’s important that brands talk about their sustainability initiatives, while 68 percent are more likely to buy from a company that has a clear environmental strategy in place.

47 percent of consumers think brands have the most responsibility when it comes to delivering action on climate change, and almost half (48 percent) think that companies are acting sincerely in their efforts to make a difference.

“Many businesses have taken huge strides in recent years to develop and implement effective sustainability strategies; however, it’s essential that it’s seen as a boardroom issue and not something that is hastily added on,” Stretton said. “More than half of consumers don’t believe businesses are acting sincerely in their efforts, which further indicates the role that communication plays in engaging consumers and ensuring that the right message is getting across.”

“The data indicate that there is a clear correlation between consumer understanding and how positively they feel about a specific term. This puts the onus firmly on brands to properly educate consumers so that awareness and understanding of major climate-related terms are increased across the board,” said Paul Flatters, founder and CEO of Trajectory. “The fact that just under half of all consumers believe that brands hold the most responsibility is evidence of the power businesses hold; so it is vitally important that the issue is taken seriously and action is taken to engage with and further educate them.”