Bridging the Sustainability Trust Gap in a Climate-Challenged World

3 05 2023

Image: Getty

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. By Dr. Rebecca Swift, Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images from Sustainable Brands • Reposted: May 3, 2023

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.

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.

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WFA: Marketers Lag Consumers On Importance Of Responsible Brands

9 03 2013


According to new research released this week by the World Federation of Advertisers, some 83% of marketers believe brands should have a “purpose”, but many shoppers have moved ahead of the industry in this area.  Some 56% of industry insiders thought consumers would prefer brands that supported “good causes at the same time as making money”, but Edelman’s consumer research pegged the actual total at 76%.

These figures stood at 40% and 47% respectively with regard to how many people bought caused-backing products at least once a month.

More broadly, only 38% of marketers had witnessed “consumer scepticism” when trying to position their products around a “purpose”, with shoppers in Europe, somewhat surprisingly, the least cynical.

The trade body polled 149 marketers from 58 firms controlling $70bn in adspend. It then compared the results with a global poll of 8,000 shoppers conducted by Edelman, the PR network.  The study was presented at the WFA’s Global Marketer Week, and features insights from organisations like Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the brewer, and Johnson & Johnson, the healthcare giant.

Fully 80% of the professionals polled agreed chief executives should help and be involved in shaping a purpose, a reading which stood at 74% for chief marketing officers, 64% for corporate communications and 53% for all staff.

While 49% of this panel agreed their brands had a purpose, only 38% felt it was communicated well. More positively, a 93% majority said the impact of purpose on reputation could be measured, as did 91% for consumer engagement.

Upon being asked to name the company which has best embraced purpose, Unilever, the FMCG firm, led the charts on 23%, buoyed by its goal to double sales and halve its environmental footprint by 2020.

Procter & Gamble, a rival to Unilever, took second on 15%, and has embraced the corporate mantra of “touching and improving” consumers. Soft drinks titan Coca-Cola was third on 14%.

Edelman Trust Barometer: Only 46% of Americans trust business to do the right thing.

12 01 2012

In their 11th annual global survey on trust, Edelman research reports that people’s trust of institutions and returned to levels comparable to the height of the worldwide financial crises in 2009.

When asked how much they trust various institutions, only NGO’s were trusted by the majority of U.S. respondents.  Business, government and the media are not trusted by the majority of people and media’s trustworthiness as reached record lows.

  • 55% trust non-government organizations
  • 46% trust business.
  • 40% trust government.
  • 27% trust the media.

The drivers to corporate reputations are quality, transparency, trustworthiness and employee well-being.

The study concludes that businesses must align profit and purpose for social benefit.  It reports that people’s demands for authority and accountability are setting new expectations for corporate leadership and that trust is the essential component to both protect reputations and gain tangible benefits.  Lack of trust is a barrier to change.