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Everything you need to know about the Language of Sustainability

The popularity and use of the word ‘sustainability’ has exploded over the past few decades. But just because it’s well circulated doesn’t mean it’s understood. And we had a hunch that the definition was more than a bit woolly. 

That insight led to an interesting discussion between Fleet Street and leading research company, Trajectory. We both wanted to get a more solid understanding of what consumers really thought about the term ‘sustainability’ and some of the other terms they use to describe the climate crisis. 

As communicators, it’s (obviously) essential that we tell stories to inspire and motivate our audiences, using words that resonate. But with the increased awareness of greenwashing (and greenshifting, greenlighting, greencrowding and others) - and the lawsuits to match - we weren’t entirely convinced that a thoughtful, well understood narrative really existed. 

We set out to gather a better understanding of the terms that consumers really use when they talk about the climate crisis. We hosted four focus groups, simply prompting people to tell us which are their ‘go to’ terms, when they speak about climate change. 

Using that insight, we ran a quantitative piece of research among 1,000 people to provide data about which terms people loved, and which they loathed. Here’s what we found: 

1. What you're doing matters: People really do want to hear what businesses are doing to tackle climate change. They care. And they want to hear about the progress businesses are making to address the threat of constantly changing climates. 
2. Business has the most responsibility to act: People want to hear about business’ progress, because people believe that brands and businesses have the most responsibility to behave sustainably - more so than governments, or consumers themselves. 
3. Consumer cynicism is rife: However, consumers are often cynical. Especially when it comes to climate change initiatives, consumers display widespread cynicism. There is a lack of trust. 
4. Poor understanding of climate change terms is an issue: And the research highlights this may well be because consumers have a limited understanding of what many climate change terms really mean. 
5. Carbon related terms are especially problematic: Especially terms including offsetting, net zero and carbon neutral. These terms are particularly poorly understood among the general consumer. This is concerning when, right now, the climate change debate is centred on decarbonisation and how we can drive a reduction in carbon emissions across our societies and economies. 
6. Terms need to be functional and actionable, over conceptual: But there is hope. Because the terms that consumers do resonate with are instructional and pragmatic. Terms like ‘recyclable’ and ‘reduce energy use’, which are much more functional, were better received by consumers than conceptual terms like ‘circular economy’.
7. One size does not fit all: Finally, the research highlighted very different responses across socio-economic groups. Age and stage at which consumers leave education both have a big impact (with younger and more highly educated consumers having a better understanding of the language and issues). So the approach brands take needs to be tailored to specific target audiences and segments.

In summary, the research showed us that consumers do have an appetite for learning about brands’ sustainability efforts. Where we need to focus our attention now is on using language that helps to explain some of the more complicated concepts (like circularity), whilst also being inspirational and practical, and building trust along the way. 

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