50 shades of greenwashing – study shows consumers don’t believe brand claims

In recent years, terms such as 'greenwashing', ‘sportswashing’ even ‘well-being washing’ have risen in prominence, accusing companies of being disingenuous in their claims on striving for environmental and social good..

The impact is widespread, research from Sensu Insight suggests as many as 23% of organisations have been accused of such hypocrisy at some point. The scrutiny such claims come under has even created a new trend, 'greenhushing' when a business avoids ESG communications altogether to avoid public scrutiny.

Sensu Insight recently studied greenwashing and the devastating effect it can have on brand reputation. Using survey data to identify public perception of environmental claims, we compiled our '50 Shades of Greenwashing' report to inform businesses of how ESG communications are received and what can be done to get their messages across more effectively.

Which sectors are most and least trusted for ESG?

Public opinion

The lack of public trust was stark. Less than a quarter (23%) of the public take ESG claims at face value with 14% saying they typically disbelieve claims.

This suspicion was not evenly spread across business sectors. Supermarkets and major retailers, technology companies and food or drink manufacturers were much more likely to be believed (the proportion of the population likely to trust an announcement made by such companies ranges from 52% to 44%) than airlines, car manufacturers and fashion brands (with between 34% to 32% likely to believe their claims to some extent).

This lack of trust matters to customers. 89% of the public said that they cared about the environmental stance of businesses and brands, with 86% wanting an increase in their level of transparency on environmental matters.

And yet the vast majority feel let down by the business community. Only 8% agreed that most businesses currently do enough for the environment.

Who do we believe?

Future action

From the research, we’ve identified six major changes companies can make to ensure their investment in ESG projects helps support their brand profile.

  1. Keep communicating: the pressure to take a stance on ESG issues is too strong to stay silent. Building an authentic, consistent position is crucial for a healthy corporate reputation.
  2. Be consistent and transparent: admit flaws and weaknesses and show how the drive to ESG goals is part of a journey.
  3. Don’t expect immediate praise: businesses will be held to high standards by some. Certain sectors are seen to have an inherently negative impact.
  4. Build partnerships with independent experts: harness their expertise and support. For example, groups such as the Energy Saving Trust are the most likely to be believed.
  5. Remain true to your values: if the values that share your ESG policies are central to your decision-making it will build trust over time.
  6. Keep listening: tracking audience perceptions of your ESG attributes will help shape future initiatives and aid communication that’s more likely to be accepted at face value.

Methodology

Results of Sensu Insight’s global analysis of online content and conversation related to these key terms. Including 367,480 mentions from 136,170 unique authors from November 2020 to November 2022.

Nationally representative sample of 1,682 UK adults carried out by Sensu Insight in October 2022.

Written by Steve Leigh, managing director of Sensu Insight

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