Three-quarters of the British public have a poor understanding of commonly-used climate terminology like ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘locally grown’.
The majority of people in the UK struggle to understand key language to do with the climate crisis and environmental policy, a new study has found.
Only a quarter of Brits responding to a poll said they understood clearly what was meant by ‘green’ and around the same number could not define the term ‘sustainable’.
The survey, conducted by insights experts Trajectory and communication agency Fleet Street, shows key terminology for discussing climate change and climate protection is understood by a minority of people in the UK.
So what do these words really mean and why are they so hard to comprehend?
Three-quarters of Brits don’t understand key climate language
The study, published on Wednesday, found that three-quarters of the British public have a poor understanding of commonly-used climate terminology like ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘locally grown’.
Those surveyed also indicated they did not clearly understand government policy aimed at reducing waste.
Three months on from the introduction of the single-use plastic ban on cutlery and plates, under half of survey respondents said they could confidently define the phrase ‘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,” Mark Stretton, co-founder of Fleet Street, told UK newspaper the Guardian.
“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.”
‘An enormous, generational issue’
Stretton added that while companies have begun prioritising and investing in sustainability, there is “massive work to be done on the language used, and the more consumers understand, the more likely they are to positively engage with, and respond to what is clearly an enormous, generational issue.”
The research found that respondents aged between 18 and 24 have a better understanding of widespread terminology around climate and environmental policy.
When asked about the term ‘sustainable’, 24 per cent more people from the 18-24 age bracket said they were confident about its meaning compared to over 65s.
Respondents with higher levels of education expressed greater confidence in understanding climate-related words including ‘circular economy’ – which only 4 per cent of the 1,000 UK adults surveyed were able to define.
Only 11 per cent knew what ‘carbon offsetting’ meant, despite it being one of the primary methods that businesses rely on to hit their net zero goals. One quarter could define the word ‘green’ in a sustainability context, and just over half (59 per cent) understood what ‘net zero’ actually means.
Majority of Brits support sustainability initiatives
Despite the difficulty in understanding key climate language, the study found that the majority of respondents saw environmental investment positively.
Nine out of 10 Brits questioned said it was important for brands and businesses to communicate their sustainability action plans while 60 per cent said they would prioritise shopping from companies with transparent environmental policies.
What does ‘sustainable’ mean?
The survey not only shows the need for greater education surrounding climate language but also highlights how businesses can greenwash their actions using little-understood buzzwords.
Here are some keywords and their definitions:
Sustainable – something made in a way that causes little or no damage to the environment.
Green – adjective describing people, organisations or actions that pose as little risk to the environment as possible.
Environmentally-friendly – actions that do not harm or are trying to help the environment.
Single-use plastics – plastic items that are used once and then thrown away.
Net zero – a state where emissions of carbon dioxide due to human activities and removal of these gases are in balance over a given period.
Circular economy – an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials to continue production in an environmentally friendly way.