The study revealed a significant gap in consumer understanding of key climate terminology commonly fostered by organisations to describe their products and services.

Just 24.3 per cent of those surveyed ‘completely understand’ the term “green”, declining to 14.9 per cent understanding “climate neutral”, 11.3 per cent for carbon offsetting, and a mere 4.4 per cent for “circular economy.”

The study, conducted by insights firm Trajectory in partnership with Fleet Street, is a quantitative survey of 1,000 UK adults with different levels of stated concern about climate change. Some of the more ambiguous climate terms such as “green” and “circularity” were generally poorly understood, and just 59 per cent of respondents claimed to “completely understand” the term “net zero,” a term central to climate language among governments and organisations. Of all the terms discussed in the survey, “carbon offsetting” was the most poorly understood and incited the least amount of positivity among consumers.  

Overall, the study suggests that phrases like “eco-friendly”, “carbon neutral,” and “carbon offsetting” may be lost on consumers who don’t have a clear grasp on the core terminology. This creates an opening for potential greenwashers who wrongly ascribe climate terms to their products or services and get away with it.

The problem also extends to government policies, as terminology surrounding recycling and recyclability aren’t clearly understood which weakens the impact and progress of related schemes. Three months after a ban on single-use plastic cutlery and plates, just 47 per cent of consumers surveyed were confident at defining “single-use plastics.”

"Work needs to be done to engage consumers, starting with the language used, as much of it doesn’t appear to mean much to them,” said Mark Stretton, co-founder of Fleet Street. The lack of complete understanding of what many brands and businesses would probably consider to be standard terms, such as ‘net zero’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, is striking, and indicates a level of disconnect between brands and consumers,” her adds.

The study recommends being as succinct as possible when marketing your products and services. For example, replace “net positive” with “in making this product we’ve given more to the planet than we’ve taken,” and support your claim with statistical evidence. By explaining the environmental credentials clearly, your consumers will have a better understanding of the products they’re buying.

Avoid the greenwashing trap! We have a variety of resources available to help you understand the climate terminology and correctly label your products and services: 

1. How to avoid greenwashing

2. 6 greenwashing terms worth knowing

3. Net Zero Key Terms Glossary


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