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

Grant Pearson, Principal Consultant - Waste & Resource Management, SLR Consulting Ltd, Sep 1, 2022

Grant Pearson, of ESA Associate Member SLR Consulting Ltd, looks at how the resource and waste management sector is evolving, and how the behaviour of stakeholders can be influenced heavily by their perceptions.

An article in Circular earlier this month, written by Neil Grundon, about how a headline and report about plastic recycling performance could have presented a more supportive approach, started an interesting conversation about reality and perception and how the need to drive online traffic or grab attention can distort facts. 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. 

Perceptions can be heavily influenced by whether people feel 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? In many cases, the ‘truth’ often sits in the middle ground between the two polarised extremes, with a variety of contributing factors and nuances to consider.

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.

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. 

There are many standards and approaches out there that can be used to avoid greenwashing, but essentially transparent sustainability assessments come from developing and meticulously interrogating open and clear analytical processes based on tangible evidence. This then delivers defensible outcomes on which to base future actions and goals for improvement in line with circular principles, allowing consumers to take informed, trusted decisions and achieve positive social, environmental, and economic benefits for all. 

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Grant Pearson, Principal Consultant, SLR Consulting

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.