Written by Fleet Street
5 min read

Do consumers really understand terms like “carbon offsetting” or “circular economy” that are often used by businesses when they talk about their sustainability strategy?

We wanted to find out, so we collaborated with insights firm Trajectory to create ‘The Language of Sustainability’ – a new report that explores the consumer understanding of the language companies use when describing their climate change initiatives.
The research was revealed in The Guardian and as part of Fleet Street’s half day takeover at the 2024 Restaurant Marketer & Innovator European Summit,  where we curated a programme of talks and panel discussions. Key figures from across the hospitality world participated including Chief Corporate Affairs & Sustainability Officer for KFC, Jenny Packwood; CEO of Elior, Catherine Roe; Vice President of F&B Strategy and Development EMEA at Hilton, Emma Banks; and CEO of Punch Pubs & Co, Clive Chesser.  

You can access the full research here or get a copy by emailing us at  

In the meantime, you can read the press release below, which highlights some of the key findings:



 24 January 2024; London, UK: New research has revealed there is a worryingly low understanding of some of the most common terms that businesses use when communicating about sustainability.  

 The study – conducted by insights firm Trajectory and communications agency Fleet Street – reveals that just 11% of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of the term ‘carbon offsetting’, despite it being one of the primary methods that businesses rely on to hit their net zero goals. 

 Another term that has been widely adopted by brands, ‘circular economy’, is understood by staggeringly few, with just 4% of consumers polled claiming to be confident in defining it, indicating how there is a clear language barrier between businesses and consumers.  

 Furthermore, 25% of consumers feel they have a thorough understanding of the term ‘green’, while 26% can confidently define ‘sustainability’, and 32% ‘organic’.  

 Even some of the most commonly used terms are completely understood by worryingly few consumers, with only 35% confident of being able to define the term ‘environmentally friendly’, 40% ‘locally grown/seasonal’, 55% ‘recycling’, and 59% ‘net zero’. 

 Despite widespread media coverage and recent government legislation banning the use of ‘single use plastics’, only 47% of consumers are confident at defining what that term means, indicating a further level of disconnect between consumers and businesses.  

 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. 

“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.”

 The data shows a clear correlation between understanding and favourability, as the terms that consumers feel the most positive about – ‘recycling’, ‘single use plastic’, and ‘locally sourced/grown’ – are also the most widely understood.  

 The analysis indicates that younger age groups (18-24-year-olds) are more confident when it comes to understanding what these key terms mean. For example, the word ‘sustainability’ was understood by 24% more consumers from the 18-24-year-old age group compared to consumers aged 65+, suggesting that younger people are more engaged with the issue.  

When taking education into consideration, those with higher levels of education have greater confidence in their understanding of key terms. For example, ‘circular economy’ was understood by 11% more consumers who have a university degree or higher compared to those who left school at 16. Interestingly, the term was understood by 30% more consumers who are still in formal education, compared to older consumers who left education after secondary school, which suggests that there is a greater understanding amongst pupils now than in previous generations.  

 Despite the confusion around some of the key terms, the data reveals the importance of effective communication. Nine out of 10 consumers (90%) 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.  

 47% of consumers think brands have the most responsibility when it comes to delivering action on climate change, and almost half (48%) think that companies are acting sincerely in their efforts to make a difference.  

 Stretton continued: “Many businesses have taken huge strides in recent years to develop and implement effective sustainability strategies; however, it’s essential that it’s seen as a boardroom issue and not something that is hastily added on. More than half of consumers don’t believe businesses are acting sincerely in their efforts, which further indicates the role that communication plays in engaging consumers and ensuring that the right message is getting across.”

 Paul Flatters, Founder and CEO of Trajectory, said: The data indicates that there is a clear correlation between consumer understanding and how positively they feel about a specific term. This puts the onus firmly on brands to properly educate consumers so that awareness and understanding of major climate related terms are increased across the board. The fact that just under half of all consumers believe that brands hold the most responsibility is evidence of the power businesses hold, so it is vitally important that the issue is taken seriously and action is taken to engage with and further educate them.” 

 The full research is available to download here 

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