Sustainability Greenwashing News

More than half of consumers say they’ve been misled by brand sustainability claims


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

October 11, 2023 | 7 min read

New research from Kantar points to a “crisis of trust” among consumers over greenwashing.

Sustainable shopping

52% of consumers say they have encountered misleading claims by brands / Unsplash

Despite worldwide regulatory crackdowns against misleading environmental claims, the latest study by Kantar reveals that worry about greenwashing among consumers remain high and that it’s preventing them from adopting more sustainable behaviors.

Kantar’s Global Sustainability Sector Index evaluates how consumers’ concerns around sustainability and greenwashing vary across sectors, incorporating insights from 32,000 interviews across 42 sectors and in 33 countries.

Concerns about greenwashing are pervasive across all sectors

Data from its 2023 report highlights that greenwashing fears are widespread among consumers, with over half (52%) of consumers reporting encountering false or misleading information about sustainable actions taken by brands.

The worst offending sectors are social media (60%), meat and meat products (58%) and clothing and footwear (57%). And while pet food and baby hygiene products sit at the bottom of the table for greenwashing concerns, a significant proportion of consumers – more than 4 in 10 – believe that brands in those sectors share false or inaccurate information regarding their sustainability efforts.

According to Karine Trinquetel, global head of Offer, the sustainable transformation practice at Kantar, while the research team was not especially surprised to see certain sectors like social media rank highly for perceived levels of greenwashing among consumers, they were taken aback by the consistently high levels across all the sectors.

“Even ‘pet food,’ which has arguably the lowest score, is still at 42% – nearly half of all consumers. It’s alarming. It’s clear we are in a crisis of greenwashing, socialwashing and a crisis of trust that poses significant barriers to enabling people to pivot to different types of consumption,” she told The Drum.

The luxury goods industry also ranked surprisingly high, with the data showing that consumers see the luxury sector as similar to the oil and gas industry in terms of driving progress on social and environmental issues, though not to the same extent as cigarettes or vaping.

Walking the talk

In Trinquetel’s view, this crisis poses a significant barrier to brands enabling change when it comes to sustainable habits, lifestyles and behaviors among consumers. “How can brands ask people to make better choices or to take a leap of faith and try something new if they can’t trust the claims that are being presented to them?” she poses.

She adds that there remains a dissonance between the level that consumers care about the issue and the extent to which it affects their purchasing decisions the report suggests.

The most considerable discrepancy exists for the oil and gas industry (66%) and clothing and footwear (63%). The sectors faring the best in this area include in-home entertainment (48%) and electric vehicles (50%).

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Socio-economic factors

Trinquetel posits that socio-economic factors such as the cost of living crisis will have an effect on consumers’ willingness to shop for sustainable products (in the UK and the US especially, economic concerns ranked highest in a list of issues consumers felt needed urgent resolution).

But globally, Trinquetel says that there is a clear concern and desire for action on environmental and social issues. When consumers were quizzed on which issues they felt were most pressing to solve, the climate emergency came out on top at 49%.

“The issue is that sustainability has historically been used as a premiumization strategy and it means a lot of people feel left out because they feel like they don’t have access to these products.”

Trinquentel explains that cost is perceived as the number one barrier to consumers resisting making a sustainable purchase, quickly followed by a lack of information.

Furthermore, the more passionately consumers tend to feel about sustainability and the more time they invest in actively seeking out sustainable brands, the more they feel they see brand greenwashing. “As people are becoming more knowledgeable the more they feel that the narrative they are being presented with is not compelling enough.”

And the consequences across the sectors are severe, Trinquetel explains. The more people perceive greenwashing, the more they stop buying things.

“We’ve seen this quite a bit around plastic, for example, where people withdraw from the category entirely. When it’s a social issue, as we’ve seen with the likes of Shein, people reject first or pivot to someone else in the category. Simply, greenwashing leads to distrust and rejection.”

In Trinquetel’s view, the solution is for brands to focus on making “aggressive commitments” and turning to third parties to review and validate them: “Integrity is the foundation of inspiring trust,” she says. “But in a post-truth world, that’s not enough.”

She says that these commitments to honesty and transparency in their communications must be followed through communications: “Brands have to be bold and brave and show people they are working towards a common goal – and involving consumers in that journey.”

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