aerial view of forest

Perception is not reality – how can we create a circle of trust?

Grant Pearson Principal
Grant Pearson

Grant is a Principal Consultant within SLR’s Resources & Waste Management team. He has over 25 years’ experience in industry and consultancy roles including contaminated land analysis, environmental monitoring, management and permitting of landfills, and development of sustainable approaches to resources and waste management. He has also led and contributed to the development of numerous resource and waste management strategies for local authorities, governments and private sector clients both throughout the UK and internationally.

Psychology may contend that there is no such thing as reality, but the scientific section of my brain disagrees. As our knowledge and understanding evolve, so scientific theories can change. That process may not alter the realities of the environmental and social systems within which we live, but it may alter our perceptions of them.

The resource and waste management sector is evolving, and the behaviour of stakeholders can be influenced heavily by their perceptions. If the opportunities to move towards a truly circular economic model are to be realised to their fullest potential, securing the trust, support and buy-in of all stakeholders, particularly the public (in the role of consumer / user / recycler), is essential.

A recent Greenpeace study, which has been reported by many media outlets as showing that ‘plastic recycling doesn’t work’[1] provides a contemporary example of how the impact of perception should perhaps be considered more carefully, to positively influence thinking and bring about equally positive behavioural change. Acknowledging that we are bombarded with ‘news’ and information around the clock, it is inevitable that many people would have glanced at that clickbait headline and drawn their own conclusions, perhaps without any further consideration of the subject. Such headlines could result in increased co-disposal of recyclable plastics with residual waste rather than being separated at source. In this light, why would a media outlet seek to propagate a message that plastic recycling doesn’t work at what may be a critical point in the evolution of strategies, infrastructure and technologies which seek to specifically address this issue?

In my view, this is often the crux of the problem in moving important debates forward in a positive and constructive manner – there is a tendency throughout mainstream and social media for all things to be ‘reported’ in extremes, where something is presented as either entirely good / positive or entirely bad / negative, with an underlying presumption that bad / negative news is more likely to attract attention. In many cases, the reality of a situation often sits in the middle ground between two polarised extremes, with a variety of contributing factors and nuances to consider.

Perceptions can be heavily influenced by whether people feel they can trust that what they are reading or hearing represents factual reporting of the ‘truth’, rather than an exaggerated opinion that has been designed to grab attention and sway public thinking with over simplified messages at the headline level, which can easily polarise views. By promoting extreme views and dividing people based on opinion, are media outlets encouraging constructive debate and positive outcomes or just increasing conflict and resistance to change?

This question of trust and consumer behaviour also applies to the concept of ‘greenwashing’, where corporate entities are considered to have exaggerated or even fabricated the environmental credentials of their products, potentially misleading the public into thinking they are making sustainable choices through use of information and claims that are later shown to be inaccurate. Are reported examples of greenwashing always deliberate, or could some simply reflect an unintended consequence of failing to take proper account of relevant factors when assessing sustainability? How can such unintended outcomes, and the adverse publicity associated with them, be avoided?

One way is to avoid providing the media with easy targets at which to direct such criticisms. Environmental claims should always be underpinned by rigorous scientific analysis - not retweets, soundbites, catchy advertising slogans or hyperbole which suit a predetermined narrative.

By developing and meticulously interrogating analytical processes that support transparent sustainability assessments, defensible outcomes are delivered on which future actions and goals for improvement in line with circular principles can be based, delivering positive social, environmental and economic benefits for all.

Our clients often ask us to help them assess and present the sustainability benefits of their business, products and/or services. Our challenge is always to help them objectively understand both sides of the story – the positives and negatives – including the uncertainties that arise from what, by necessity, are finite studies.

We are often commissioned by organisations who are already aware that they are doing well but need help in demonstrating it. In these cases, the results of our analyses generally provide a positive reinforcement of progress made, supported by tangible evidence. However, SLR will not shy away from revealing unfavourable results to a client, and we firmly resist any attempts to manipulate outcomes to present a false impression of reality. This can inevitably lead to some awkward conversations, but we maintain this approach so that all our clients benefit from SLR’s independence and integrity when sharing our findings publicly.

If your organisation would benefit from such insights, please get in contact and we can start the conversation.


[1] The Big Plastic Count Results: How citizen science exposed a system incapable of tackling the plastic crisis | Greenpeace UK

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