We are living in a trust paradox. This is an era of strong economic performance and nearly full employment; over the past two decades, more than a billion people around the world have lifted themselves out of poverty. The major societal institutions—government, business, NGOs and media—should be enjoying high levels of trust. Yet the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, our 21st annual study, tells us that no institution is trusted.
In past years, good economic conditions have presaged rising levels of trust, and this link still applies in developing markets in Asia and the Middle East. But in the developed world, major violations of the social contract—corporate malfeasance, government corruption, fake news—have upended this relationship. In developed markets, trust has become uncoupled from GDP growth because people feel they are not getting their fair share of growing prosperity. National income inequality is now the more important factor in institutional trust. In markets with high income inequality, the gap between trust in business and trust in government is much wider (12 points) than the gap in low inequality markets (four points). This is a worrying institutional imbalance.
Fears are stifling hope, as long-held assumptions about the benefits of hard work and citizenship have been upended. Eighty-three percent of employees globally are worried about job loss due to concerns such as the lack of training, cheaper foreign competition, immigration, automation and the gig economy. Over half of our respondents said that they are losing the respect and dignity they once enjoyed in their country. Three in four are worried that fake news will be used as a weapon. Six in 10 fear the pace of technological change; they are no longer in control of their destiny. Cue the growing number of citizen-led protests and the rise of populism.
The “mass-class” trust divide has become chronic, reaching record levels in more countries than ever, with a global 14-point gap between informed public and mass population trust in institutions. In developed markets, less than one in three people believe that they will be better off in five years. Under 20 percent of the general population express confidence in the system, and 73 percent are looking for change. More than half of our respondents believe that capitalism causes more harm than good, and that democracy is losing its effectiveness. We find ourselves far from Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, “The End of History,” which touted the triumph of liberal democracy.
Business once paid only lip service to this kind of societal discontent but now it has leapt into the void left by populist and partisan government. It’s no longer business as usual, with an exclusive focus on shareholder returns. Business now sees the need to play a positive role in global governance. The decision by the Business Roundtable to endorse a multi-stakeholder model for American multi-nationals; the initiation of Business for Inclusive Growth focused on fair wages by French multi-nationals; and the signing by 177 multi-nationals to the Business Ambition for 1.5°C are definitive steps toward an essential role for business as a means of improving society. These are incredibly positive developments, led by CEOs who understand that their mandate has gone beyond corporate social responsibility to fundamental operational change.
Business has been prompted to action by the recognition that stakeholders now have new expectations of the corporate sector. A stunning 92 percent of employees surveyed in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer say that they expect their employer’s CEO to speak up on one or more issues ranging from income inequality to diversity and training for jobs of the future. Seventy-three percent of employees expect a prospective employer to offer the opportunity to shape the future of society in a positive way. Consumers share this determination; our 2019 “In Brands We Trust?” study found that nearly two-thirds of consumers buy based on their beliefs, and 81 percent agree that “a brand I can trust” is one of their top reasons for purchase. Our Edelman 2020 Trust Barometer respondents told us that customers and employees are over five times more important to a company’s long-term success than shareholders.
This seismic societal shift has led us, after 20 years of research, to evolve our model for measuring trust. This model supplants Professor Francis Fukuyama’s trust construct from early the 1990s, which was premised on continued upward mobility, guaranteed by a strong legal structure, and was the basis of the first Edelman Trust Barometer in the year 2000. We have always known that people grant their trust based on two distinct considerations: competence and ethical behavior; for two decades we have asked people if they trust institutions “to do what is right.” Now, based on new societal expectations, we are probing deeper into “what is right,” measuring purpose, vision, honesty and fairness as the dimensions of ethical behavior. We have proved the undeniable importance of these dimensions for business through our Edelman Trust Management framework. After tracking trust in 40 global companies over the past year, we learned that ethical attributes drive 76 percent of the trust capital of organizations, while competence drives 24 percent.
This year’s Trust Barometer reveals startling imbalances among the institutions. Business ranks highest in competence, holding a gigantic 54-point gap over government as an institution that is good at what it does. NGOs are much more trusted on ethical behavior than government (a 31-point gap). Government is trusted more than twice as much as business to protect the environment and close the income inequality gap.
The four existential issues of the next decade—income inequality, sustainability, information quality and artificial intelligence—will require higher levels of cooperation among our institutions; no single entity can take on these complex challenges alone. But only about one-third of people believe that business does a good job of partnering with NGOs or government. Currently business and government are like children of different weights on an unbalanced playground seesaw; government, perceived as both incompetent and unethical, is unable to provide the necessary counterbalance to business, which is considered highly effective but too self-interested. Business must stop pushing government away. An exemplary model is Unilever*, which has pledged to cut its use of virgin plastics in half by 2025, working with partners that include the United Nations and the Government of Indonesia. All eyes are now on the tech industry, which will need to be much more open to forward-looking regulation of innovation.
Business must take the lead on solving the trust paradox because it has the greatest freedom to act. Its immediate mandates are clear. An overwhelming number of respondents believe that it is the duty of business to pay decent wages (83 percent) and provide retraining for workers whose jobs are threatened by automation (79 percent). Yet less than a third of people trust that business will do these. The time for talk is over. 2020 must be the year of action.
Richard Edelman is CEO.