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Results of the 2017 G&S Sense & Sustainability Study show that public expectations are rising for government and industry protection of U.S. consumers and environment.
Amid high-profile news of corporate misconduct, consumer safety concerns and shifting U.S. policies on environmental protection, Americans are placing greater responsibility on government, businesses and themselves to serve as environmental and social stewards, according to the eighth annual G&S Sense & Sustainability® Study. The G&S study was conducted online by YouGov Plc in August 2017 among 1,158 U.S. adults.
The G&S study also probed the attitudes of 482 U.S. retail investors, or Americans who currently own stocks, bonds and options either directly or through a retirement plan. Respondents within this particular segment provided their perspectives on specific environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors and the degree to which these help determine equity investment exposure.
The survey focused on these primary areas:
- Familiarity with business practices related to environmental and social responsibility;
- Business actions that contribute to a positive reputation for sustainability;
- Sources for information about companies’ environmental and social responsibility initiatives; and,
- Impact of ESG factors in personal investing decisions.
Americans believe the public and government each bear the greatest responsibility for keeping society and nature safe along the supply chain. Results were based on a selection of specific groups and how frequently they were ranked in the top three spots. When asked to rank certain groups according to their degree of responsibility for protecting the well-being of people and natural resources within the economic process, more than half of Americans pointed to the government (52 percent) and the general public (52 percent) as one of the most significant actors. The next most frequently identified are suppliers that provide ingredients, parts or processes used in goods and services purchased by customers (46 percent).
In comparing results before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there are signs that perceptions may be changing about which groups have burdens of environmental and social responsibility. Results were based on a selection of specific groups and how frequently they were ranked in the top three spots. The largest gains were among Americans who believe the greatest responsibility rests with retailers (37 percent in 2017 vs. 30 percent in 2015) and government (52 percent in 2017 vs. 48 percent in 2015). In contrast, there was a notable decline among Americans who ranked non-governmental or “watchdog” organizations (43 percent in 2017 vs. 50 percent in 2015) and religious groups (30 percent in 2017 vs. 35 percent in 2015) as those holding the most responsibility.
Companies that support economic growth and ecological conservation are viewed most favorably in terms of sustainability efforts. Creating local jobs (57 percent) and conserving natural resources (53 percent) are the business attributes or activities that are most commonly seen as contributing to a company’s positive reputation for sustainability. In contrast, having a celebrity spokesperson promote a company’s sustainability work is barely considered as creating a positive impression (2 percent).
For the fourth consecutive year, the news media remains the top source for Americans to learn about the sustainability efforts of businesses. Though the news media is the source Americans most commonly rely on for information about CSR and environmental sustainability, previous studies show a sharp drop in the last four years (57 percent in 2014, 54 percent in 2015, 50 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2017).
Passivity is deepening as fewer Americans seek information about what businesses are doing to contribute positively. The 2017 results show a notable increase in the four-year trend among survey takers who do not use any sources to learn about corporate efforts to promote sustainability (20 percent in 2014, 25 percent in 2015, 27 percent in 2016 and 32 percent in 2017).
Personal investors who examine corporate responsibility are significantly influenced by factors affecting business relationships rather than brand attributes. When investing, Americans are particularly guided by ESG issues that highlight the business impact on individuals: strong customer relationships rooted in respect (81 percent), positive reputation earned for ethical practices by management (74 percent) and fair wages to retain top talent (73 percent). However, when considering the influence of product features tied to eco-friendliness or social consciousness, retail investors are split about whether these brand traits matter (54 percent) or not (46 percent) in their investing decisions.
“Corporate and social responsibility issues are at the heart of broader news stories, such as the harsh treatment of airline passengers, Silicon Valley’s workplace disparities and gender pay gap, and White House policies on energy and the environment. Businesses and their supply chains are under public scrutiny for their environmental and societal impact, which means industry and government leaders must be prepared to address consumers, employees, investors and voters more directly as part of mainstream audiences. In the intense competition for audience attention, business communicators are best positioned to emotionally connect people with complex topics such as corporate social responsibility and sustainable investing.”
Ron Loch, Managing Director and Sustainability Consulting Lead, G&S Business Communications