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Study finds that most Brits don’t understand key climate terminology

In an increasingly environmentally conscious world, the use of terms like ‘green’ and ‘climate-friendly’ are being woven into political, marketing, and product campaigns like never before. But how many of us actually understand what they mean?

A recent study has shown that an overwhelming majority of people living in Britian are confused by terminology related to environmental policies and the climate crisis.

Conducted by insights experts Trajectory and communication agency Fleet Street, the poll revealed that only one quarter of respondents had a clear understanding of the meaning behind the commonly used term ‘green,’ while a comparable fraction struggled to articulate a definition for ‘sustainable.’

Published this Wednesday, the research also revealed that three-quarters of the British public exhibit a limited understanding of commonly used terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘locally grown.’

It begs the question, what is the true meaning of these widely used words and why is instilling a proper understanding of them so challenging?

The report suggests that environmental messaging coming from top officials is not clear enough.

For one, government policies aimed at waste reduction are a hinderance to society’s comprehension as they are sometimes too complex and convoluted. They are often overly-ambitious and lacking in any clear and immediate objectives, while also being poorly monitored or regulated.

For example, even after three months of the UK’s implementation of a ban on plastic cutlery and plates, less than half of the survey respondents were able to confidently explain what the phrase ‘single-use plastics’ meant.

It’s reasonable to believe that a ban on certain plastic items may not provide an understanding on the wider problem, as many customers will still encounter single-use plastic items when purchasing from other industries, including beauty and food sectors.

For this reason, Mark Stretton, co-founder of Fleet Street, emphasised the need for further efforts to engage consumers with environmental literacy, starting with refining the language that is used most frequently.

He pointed to a noticeable disparity between what many brands consider standard terms and the public’s understanding of them. While it is clear that branding teams understand what ‘net zero’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ mean, all consumers do not.

As corporations grow more concerned with prioritising and investing in sustainability, it is important to refine (and define) language to bridge the knowledge gap. If this is accomplished, we can expect greater engagement with the most pressing issue of our time – and more positive change.

Unsurprisingly, the poll revealed a generational divide in comprehension.

Respondents aged 18 to 24 confidently demonstrated a deeper understanding of climate and environmental terminology. They were able to describe what the term ‘sustainable,’ means. In fact, 24 percent more individuals in this age bracket could do so better than respondents aged over 65.

Those with higher educational levels also exhibited greater confidence in interpreting climate-related terms, including the phrase ‘circular economy,’ a concept that only 4 percent of the surveyed 1,000 UK adults could define.

When asked about ‘carbon offsetting’ only 11 percent of respondents were able to describe it as a crucial mechanism for businesses striving to achieve their net-zero goals.

Although there is a clear struggle with comprehension of climate language, the poll showed that most Brits want their governments and favourite brands to invest in eco-friendly practices.

A whopping 90 percent of Brits said that brands and businesses should be able to clearly communicate their sustainability goals and actions and 60 percent said they would buy from companies that were more transparent about their environmental policies.

This means the survey has not only underscored the urgency – and desire – for better education on climate language, but also explains how businesses have been able to successfully greenwash their customers by slapping confusing buzzwords on product labels.

It’s clear that a stronger literacy is needed when it comes to understanding environmental lingo. Once more people understand what these terms mean, half the battle is already won.