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People Trust Business, But Expect CEOs to Drive Social Change

Companies should do more to confront climate change, labor market shifts, and racism, according to a survey of 14,000 people in 14 countries by the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society and the Edelman Trust Institute. Is it time for more business leaders to step up?

Public trust in business remains relatively unshaken amid economic turbulence and a lingering pandemic, even as faith in the media and government falters, but leaders could do more to address social issues, a new global opinion survey shows.

However, not everyone trusts businesses. While trust is strong among people earning higher incomes, workers at the other end of the pay spectrum are more skeptical, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report.

Respondents across the board also have high expectations that business will step up and help correct social problems, finds the new survey, “The Changing Role of the Corporation in Society,” conducted by the Edelman Trust Institute in collaboration with Harvard Business School’s newly launched Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society.


Business should take a leading role not just on economic matters, but also social and environmental ills, such as climate change, racism, wage inequality, and job losses due to automation, according to the online survey. It was conducted in May with 14,000 respondents in 14 countries.

Companies and their CEOs should also put the interests of their customers and employees first, respondents say, as they express frustration that top executives are too focused on the concerns of shareholders and business owners.

The survey serves as a wakeup call to many business leaders who need to rethink their priorities and influence the world in more positive ways, says Sandra Sucher, professor of management practice at HBS and an internationally recognized trust researcher.

“There definitely has been an evolution in the expectations people have of business,” says Sucher, who served as a research adviser on the survey, along with Peter Tufano, Baker Foundation Professor at HBS, and Debora Spar, the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration. Spar also leads the new institute as the senior associate dean for business and global society.

“People want brands to make good decisions on where their products are made, how they are made, and what impact they have on the environment," she says. "They want there to be transparency on what the product does.”

Here are five key takeaways from the new study.

1. Business is the most—and only—trusted sector

Respondents say they trust companies more than governments, advocacy organizations, and the media. Specifically:

  • 61 percent say they trust business. Little changed from 62 percent in May 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • 52 percent trust governments, down from 65 percent in 2020, when they were the world’s most trusted institutions;

  • Trust in the media fell to 50 percent from 56 percent in 2020, while nongovernmental organizations sank to 59 percent from 62 percent two years ago.

The Edelman Trust Barometer considers a sector “trusted” if it earns more than 60 percent positive sentiment from respondents.

Holding trust amid the turbulence

Business was the only sector to earn the 60 percent "trust" required by the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2022. People felt more neutrally about governments, media, and advocacy groups.

2. Maximizing profits is not enough

Respondents say companies are giving too much deference to their shareholders and owners. The vast majority of respondents, 73 percent, say business should benefit all stakeholders instead of maximizing financial returns.

Sixty-four percent say companies should put customers first when making decisions, but only 53 percent think that businesses actually do. The sector is seen as failing other stakeholders, with only 44 percent saying business considers the interests of employees and 39 percent saying it prioritizes future generations.

3. People in fragile financial positions distrust business

Globally, the survey revealed a record trust gap of 15 percentage points between respondents in the highest quartile income segment and those in the lowest quartile. While 62 percent of high-income respondents say they trust business, low-income earners conveyed a strong distrust, with just 47 percent trusting business.

And in the US, the gap was even greater, with 61 percent of high-income people expressing trust compared to only 38 percent of low-income people.



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