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Brands fail to use language consumers understand when it comes to sustainability

The language we use when it comes to sustainability is constantly evolving, so it’s little wonder that consumers have such a low understanding of what some of the terms commonly adopted by brands actually mean.

Agency Fleet Street Communications partnered with insights firm Trajectory to conduct a piece of research to highlight consumer awareness and understanding of some of the key terms associated with sustainability and to help us, as comms professionals, identify what needs to be done to encourage better engagement between brands and consumers.

Key findings

The research indicates a strong disconnect between the language brands tend to use and the level of understanding exhibited by consumers. For example, ‘circular economy’, is understood by just 4% of consumers, and only 25% of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of the term ‘green’, indicating a clear language barrier between businesses and consumers.

But what exactly does this mean for PR? How are communications professionals best placed to help bridge this gap in understanding?

Action points

Put simply, the language we use as communicators when referring to the climate crisis must be straightforward and jargon-free. Anything overly scientific or woolly can feel alien, hence why terms like ‘traceability’, ‘circularity’ and ‘food miles’ can confidently be defined by so few.

Whilst it might sit better with your client’s tone of voice and brand identity to use more colloquial terms like ‘eco-conscious’, in reality, less than one-third of consumers (29%) can confidently define what this means. It is crucial to strike the right balance between getting our key messaging and objectives across while ensuring our audience actually understands what we’re trying to tell them.

Education matters

We must play our part in educating consumers about what these terms mean, as the data shows a clear correlation between understanding and favourability. The terms that consumers feel the most positive about -‘recycling’, ‘single-use plastic’, and ‘locally sourced/grown’ - are also the most widely understood. Therefore, it should follow that the best way to make people feel positive about the raft of different sustainability initiatives that businesses invest in, is to help them understand what they all mean.

It is through PR and communications that we are best placed to make the language of sustainability accessible and meaningful for all audiences. After all, if a brand can get more consumers on their side, they’ll build more loyalty and ultimately do more for the planet - a win-win scenario for all!


Four focus groups were set up, with different levels of stated concern about climate change, with a broad mix of socio-demographics covered. These then lead to a quantitative survey being created, which was distributed to more than 1,000 UK-based adults hinged around 20 of the top terms.

Written by Victoria Page, sustainability and ESG consultant working with Fleet Street Communications 

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