In 2023 businesses both big and small are expected to be aware of their impact on the environment and their responsibility in achieving the government’s net zero target.
Many have made great strides towards sustainability, by taking a science-based approach and reviewing all processes before harnessing technology and innovation to drive real change and inspire others to do the same.
Others, however, have made grand statements that come to nothing or conducted PR exercises which have been exposed as greenwashing.
But there’s another group which, although not guilty of greenwashing, are indulging in another misleading activity: greenhushing.
What is Greenhushing?
Greenhushing is when companies choose to not fully communicate their sustainability efforts, thus avoiding scrutiny.
What is the difference between greenhushing and greenwashing?
The main difference between greenwashing and greenhushing is that greenwashing involves making exaggerated or false claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service, whereas greenhushing involves keeping quiet about sustainability or claiming to be environmentally friendly without providing sufficient evidence.
But while greenwashing is always deliberately misleading, greenhushing can be unintentional – for example, because of a lack of knowledge or understanding about the environmental impact of a product or service.
Businesses which have not taken a scientific approach to sustainability could leave themselves open to accusations of greenhushing.
Why do businesses greenhush?
Business is under huge and increasing pressure from government, consumers, employees, shareholders and competitors to do their bit for the planet. Faced with such scrutiny, businesses can be fearful of being criticised or their reputation being damaged.
When it comes to greenhushing, the hope is that, by remaining purposefully vague about their sustainability efforts and maintaining a positive perception of their brand, a business can appear to be greener than it actually is.
While there are benefits to be gained from sustainability in terms of reputation and efficiency, research and investment needed to monitor, analyse and change processes can be costly and time-consuming.
It could also take a long time for certain sustainability initiatives to bear fruit. Speeding up such initiatives would likely mean further increasing costs – and the chances of success are uncertain.
Some firms feel it’s better to stay quiet about such initiatives until they are tried and tested.
#3. Consumer happiness
Consumers often feel a sense of guilt regarding the choices they make and where they spend their money.
But while the harmful impacts of industries such as fashion are well-known, this does not seem to have dramatically affected demand for clothing.
Instead of drawing attention to the fact that some of their processes in providing a product or service could be causing environmental harm, businesses that greenhush choose to downplay or avoid the topic of sustainability to keep customers happy.
Sometimes brands are not sure how they should share news on sustainability.
Should the whole process be shared, or just the successes? Who should know about it?
If there is little or no focus on stakeholder buy-in when it comes to sustainability, coupled with a poor communication strategy, businesses might be tempted towards greenhushing.
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How can you tell if a business is greenhushing?
#1. A lack of certifications
A red flag regarding greenhushing is when there is a lack of third-party accreditation regarding a sustainability claim.
For example, products claiming to be “eco-friendly” should include a reference to an organisation such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as evidence.
#2. Misleading claims
Another warning sign is when products claim to be “100% natural”.
Everything consists of chemicals and producing most products involve some sort of synthetic materials somewhere along the line.
And besides, not everything natural is always the most effective, or safe.
#3. Check the ESG
If you’re checking out a company, rather than a specific product or service, it’s helpful to find out about their ESG (environmental, social, and governance) management.
Such information should be available on the company’s website – or they should be able to respond to a request.
If ESG is managed by a specific department with a sustainability manager that is a good sign it is being taken seriously.
However, if ESG falls under marketing and branding, this is usually a sure sign of greenhushing.
Examples of companies that have been caught greenhushing
Coca-Cola claimed its ‘PlantBottle‘ was more eco-friendly than a standard plastic bottle.
However, the product, made with only 30% plant-based materials was still mostly made from non-renewable fossil fuels.
Less than 10% of the company’s packaging was made from plant-based materials as of 2021, according to its own sustainability report.
Fast fashion has a bad reputation when it comes to sustainability. So many brands have adopted clever strategies to appear greener.
H&M’s Conscious Collection featured clothes made from organic cotton and recycled polyester.
But its overall business practices have been criticised as not sustainable, such as overproducing clothes leading to excess waste.
How can a company avoid greenhushing?
Greenhushing might be more common than we think.
A 2016 study of 31 small rural tourism businesses in the Peak District National Park – all certified by the Environmental Quality Mark – found they only communicated 30% of their sustainability actions.
And a report by consultancy South Pole found that 67% of large organisations with a dedicated sustainability lead actually had a net zero target and a science-based target – but 23% had no plans to publicise their science-based emissions goals.
Greenhushing seems to be an issue affecting businesses of all sizes. By taking the following steps, brands can increase their confidence around sustainability and be encouraged to shout their plans from the rooftops.
While it’s true that businesses are under pressure, customers are also appreciative of small steps, as long as they show genuine intention towards sustainability.
Being open about your actions – and faults – is far better than being accused of misleading customers.
Transparency regarding your supply chain and processes – and explaining how you are working to make improvements – tells customers and other stakeholders that you care.
By equipping your employees with knowledge and green skills, your business will be better able to respond to current challenges and those in the future.
It will also help achieve stakeholder-buy-in regarding your sustainability initiatives.
Bring your people along on your sustainability journey by offering opportunities such as TSW’s range of IEMA training courses.
#3. Communicate effectively
A clear communication strategy is essential when it comes to avoiding greenhushing.
Whether it’s your business’s marketing team or an outsourced agency, a dedicated plan based on honest reporting will keep communications focused.
Again, educating those in charge of the communications plan about sustainability through training courses will help boost confidence.