Growing communication challenge for businesses: new research identifies a ‘climate language barrier’

New research finds that most British consumers fail to understand environmental terms such as ‘carbon offsetting’, ‘green’, and ‘circular economy’, posing a challenge for businesses who wish to communicate their green credentials.
February 6, 2024

Consumers show awareness of environmental terms, yet many are unsure of their meaning

New research from Trajectory in partnership with communications agency Fleet Street has shed light on an emerging climate language barrier between businesses and consumers in the UK. The findings were presented last month as part of Fleet Street’s half day takeover at the 2024 Restaurant Marketer & Innovator European Summit. Concerningly, the study found that consumers show a worryingly low understanding of some of the most common and critical terms businesses use when communicating about sustainability. For example, only a quarter of people said they completely understood the term sustainable (25.6%) similarly just 24% said they understood ‘reduced CO2 emissions’ and just over a fifth (22%) said they fully understood the term ‘reduced carbon footprint’.

Further, despite the widespread media coverage and recent government legislation in the UK which has banned ‘single use plastics’[i], less than half (47%) of consumers said they are confident in defining what that term means.  Additionally, even with the recent discussion around carbon-offsetting, just 11% of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of the term. Zero Carbon Academy have previously examined carbon offsetting, its issues, how the UK’s Climate Change Committee suggests we address some of these problems, as well as recent research which found that some offsets are not what they claim. To recap, carbon offsets are credits, usually paid to an offsetting company, that are invested into emission-reducing projects, for example tree planting initiatives.

Mark Stretton, Co-Founder of Fleet Street, said:

“While many businesses and brands are taking critical action to tackle the environmental crisis, it is clear from this research that communication is key and much more work needs to be done to engage consumers, starting with the language used – as a significant amount of it doesn’t appear to mean much to them.”[ii]

He added:

“The lack of understanding around what many 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. Many businesses are investing very heavily in sustainability, setting ambitious objectives in the process, but there is a big piece missing; there’s 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.”

Consumers want to hear about environmental initiatives, but marketing professionals feel unprepared to advertise green credentials

Trajectory & Fleet Street’s research found that despite consumer confusion around some of the key environmental terms, the public do want to hear about green credentials. Nine out of ten said they think it’s important that brands talk about their sustainability initiatives, while 68% are more likely to buy from a company that has a clear environmental strategy in place. Additionally, almost half (47%) said they feel brands have the most responsibility when it comes to delivering action on climate change. 

Yet, those tasked with communicating green credentials are often not confident doing so. Recent research revealed that many marketing professionals fear their own green knowledge is outstripped by the organisations they market for, thus leaving them at risk of unintentionally greenwashing. In a previous insight we argued that if marketers can’t grasp the green credentials in their marketing, how can consumers[iii]. The Chartered Institute for Marketing (CIM) reports that 76% of marketers have been engaged in sustainability marketing in the last five years. However, the same research reveals that two-fifths of marketers currently don’t have any formal qualifications in the area despite their desire to attain such skills.

These findings come at a time when marketers will find the regulatory environment to be one of increasing scrutiny, highlighting the importance of being clued in to green terminology to avoid any accusations of greenwashing. Upskilling should always be considered an option with offerings found on ZCA’s training page as well as market research reports here.


[i] With court proceedings underway for major polluters and new laws on single-use plastics in England, Is 2023 the year to get your plastic use under control? (


[iii] Marketing experts feel unprepared to meet the need to advertise green credentials (

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Lauren Foye
Head of Reports

Lauren has extensive experience as an analyst and market researcher in the digital technology and travel sectors. She has a background in researching and forecasting emerging technologies, with a particular passion for the Videogames and eSports industries. She joined the Critical Information Group as Head of Reports and Market Research at GRC World Forums, and leads the content and data research team at the Zero Carbon Academy. “What drew me to the academy is the opportunity to add content and commentary around sustainability across a wealth of industries and sectors.”

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