TUESDAY 17 JAN 2023 4:25 PM


The world’s political and business elites are jetting to Davos this month to address global issues and set the agenda for 2023. The meeting takes place as trust in businesses on climate and sustainability issues is shown to be sharply declining.

A majority (71%) of British people consider statements made by businesses to be unreliable, according to a Sensu Insight report. This is because of the widespread assumption that most claims are unlikely to have been verified by an independent regulator.

The 50 Shades of Greenwashing report finds that only 23% of people take environmental promises and initiatives from businesses at face value, with a third (30%) expecting companies’ environmental claims to be “slightly exaggerated” and 14% considering them entirely dishonest. The survey involved 1,682 adults in the UK.

Those most distrusted are airline operators, with 35% of respondents saying they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to believe airlines’ ESG-related claims. Fashion brands also face fierce scepticism, with 29% saying they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to trust them. Supermarkets, however, are among the most trusted companies, as voted by half (52%) of respondents, alongside food and drinks brands (46%). Steve Leigh, managing director at Sensu Insight, believes the findings are a consequence of a cynicism fuelled by “fake news.” 

“The result of our survey reveals a society sceptical of the motivations of businesses. We are increasingly living in a cynical age where accusations of ‘fake news’ make us more likely to question everything that we hear,” he says. “When suspicions are amplified through social media, it can feel like every ‘fact’ is being challenged and undermined. This makes genuine ESG initiatives and claims particularly hard to communicate effectively.

“For airlines, the lawsuit filed against KLM was the highest profile example undermining trust in the sector, with environmental campaigners using legal action to challenge the brand’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign.”

When asked whether they believe business motivations are “genuine”, only one in ten respondents (10%) believe that businesses have the best interests of the planet at heart. Only 12% of people have more trust in businesses’ environmental commitments than five years ago. Sustainability and climate change has been announced as a top topic for business elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos this month, with organisers keen to prepare for the next round of global talks at COP28 in November. 

With environmental consultancy CE Delft calculating that private jet emissions quadrupled around the event last year, The World Economic Forum has been described as a “distasteful masterclass in hypocrisy” by Greenpeace. On climate issues, environmental pressure groups are among the most trusted sources of information (as voted by 56%), alongside commentators, such as The Energy Saving Trust (63%), and international organisations, such as the United Nations (56%). For businesses wanting to convey sincerity around ESG initiatives, Leigh emphasises the need for honesty. 

“If businesses are to convey authenticity and launch a new sustainability initiative effectively, they need to communicate with transparency and honesty. The most effective communications are also often reinforced by authoritative experts and reflected throughout all of the organisation’s operations.”

Leigh adds: “It is crucial to listen carefully to how stakeholders respond, taking on board and adapting to areas of improvement. Any ESG programme will involve some degree of compromise.

“It is important to acknowledge this and explain how it is part of an ongoing, evolving strategy.”