Do Consumers See Your Business as a Force for Good?

A national survey finds that most consumers think businesses can — and should — prioritize environmental sustainability alongside profitability.

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Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR | Getty Images

The public’s growing concerns about environmental issues, along with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to impose fines on businesses for greenwashing, point to the potential fallout when companies engage in environmentally damaging actions. Companies such as Burger King, KFC, and McDonald’s have all been recent targets of government and investor pressure to cut plastic waste. Last year, both Kohl’s and Walmart reached settlements of $2.5 million and $3 million, respectively, for falsely claiming that dozens of rayon textile products were actually made from environmentally friendly bamboo.

When such large, visible companies issue false claims or fail to act, it results in missed opportunities, a growing performance-expectation gap, and, eventually, reputational damage among consumers. So, what makes a business a force for good when it comes to the future of our environment? To find out, Bentley University and Gallup recently conducted a survey of 5,757 Americans to assess how they feel about business and its potential to have a positive impact on society and the environment. The results of the Force for Good survey highlight areas in which businesses, small and large, are failing to meet people’s expectations — and how they can do better.

The public’s expectations of large companies like Kohl’s, McDonald’s, or Walmart were made clear in our research. A slight majority of our respondents (53%) said that businesses overall have a negative environmental impact. Almost two-thirds (65%) said they feel this way about large businesses, whereas 16% said that small businesses have a negative impact on the planet/environment. Younger respondents in our study had higher expectations of businesses overall, with a whopping 81% of those age 18 to 29 saying that large businesses have a negative impact on the planet, compared with 54% of respondents age 70 or older.

Drilling down into the data, we found that more than 9 in 10 respondents rated four social and environmental concerns that businesses could act on as extremely or somewhat important: practicing sustainable manufacturing (92%); promoting increased access to education and training (92%); investing time and money into local communities (92%); and operating in a way that is sustainable for the environment (91%).


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