Greenwashing—the term referring to businesses exaggerating their commitment to sustainability—is now firmly rooted in our modern-day lexicon. Baseless green claims draw public scrutiny and sometimes outrage, not to mention lawsuits, such as ones filed against companies including Dasani, Kroger, and Whole Foods.
Faced with the threats of tarnished reputations and legal trouble, some companies are instead choosing not to communicate their climate goals at all, leaving them unpublicized and meaning other companies can’t emulate their success. A new term has sprouted to signify the practice: green hushing.
WHAT IS GREEN HUSHING?
Green hushing refers to companies purposely keeping quiet about their sustainability goals, even if they are well-intentioned or plausible, for fear of being labeled greenwashers.
Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey in the U.K., defines it as: “the deliberate downplaying of your sustainability practices for fear that it will make your company look less competent, or have a negative consequence for you.”
HOW LONG HAS THIS TERM BEEN AROUND, AND HOW COMMON IS IT?
Since at least 2017. Font had seen the term only once before studying the practice more closely that year. And for something many of us may not have heard of, the practice is pretty prevalent. “Greenwashing is very visible,” Font says. “Green hushing, by definition, is not. [But] I think green hushing happens a lot more than we realize.”
It gained more widespread coverage after October 2022, when Swiss carbon finance consultancy South Pole highlighted the trend of green hushing in a report. It noted that nearly a quarter of 1,200 companies with a sustainability head are not publicizing achievements “beyond the bare minimum.” (Belgium had the highest rate, with 41% of its companies with science-based climate targets not publicizing them.) The report called the trend “concerning,” because publishing green actions has the power to inspire others, shift mindsets, and encourage collaborative approaches.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
In his study, Font, who focuses on the tourism industry, found that companies were not communicating environmental successes to consumers, especially odd in an industry where there are many chances to do so, such as at hotels or on websites.
The study concentrated on 31 small rural tourism businesses in England’s Peak District National Park. Font found that companies communicated only 30% of their sustainability actions.He noted that companies feared that by broadcasting their sustainability practices, customers would believe their vacation experiences would be worse.
One issue, he says, is that many companies aren’t sure when to announce achievements. A hotel he worked with that procured sustainable seafood sourcing didn’t know whether to announce it when launching, or when half of its hotels used it, or when all of them did. “If 50% of my supply chain is doing something,” he was asked, “is that a message that is credible for me to communicate to the world?”
Similarly, Font mentions pushback over supermarkets labeling bananas as fair trade, because customers then asked why more goods weren’t fair trade. “Many companies are choosing to not talk about it, simply for fear that the customers will see the glass as being half empty, not half full,” he says.
For larger companies, there are legal motivations to not report extensively. In recent years, lawsuits have been filed against Dasani for claiming its water bottles were 100% recyclable, and Kroger for claiming its sunscreen was “reef-friendly.” Cracking down on these false claims—like the ubiquitous “locally sourced wherever possible”—is a good thing, Font says. “That’s a bit like me saying, ‘I’m a good husband whenever possible,’” he says. “It has no value.”
Several states, most notably Florida, are divesting billions of dollars from BlackRock because it has developed strong ESG portfolios. “We see attacks being more irrational and so fierce,” says Peter Seele, a professor of corporate social responsibility and business ethics at Università della Svizzera Italiana in Switzerland. This has created another reason for companies to stay silent, or else also be on the receiving end of “anti-woke” tirades.
That polarization is troubling, Font says, and seeps into customers’ beliefs, which requires businesses to be culturally sensitive in the markets they operate in. “If I was a company in the U.S., serving the full range of customers, I would downplay the ‘S word,’” he says, referring to sustainability. They may want to spin a sustainable practice as one that is beneficial to customers in some other way.
“In the U.S., we’re just more litigious,” says Anant Sundaram, professor of business and climate change at Dartmouth University. “You say something in your 10K, or you put out some document, [and] immediately it becomes the basis for a lawsuit.” So American companies “tend to prefer to stay under the radar, and are a little gun-shy.”
WHAT COULD REDUCE GREEN HUSHING?
Climate reporting is now prevalent across developed nations. And the disclosures on climate risks, mitigation, and sustainable strategies that companies submit to government agencies are publicly accessible. But mostly, they are voluntary—allowing businesses to green hush.
Companies are keeping relatively quiet about most of their climate data. In the U.S., a report found that while 71% of S&P 500 companies report their greenhouse gas emissions, only 28% of smaller companies do so. And only 15% of S&P 500 companies disclose information on biodiversity and deforestation, and 12% on water risks.
It’s not ideal. As the Swiss report noted, companies discussing their climate actions can have positive knock-on effects and create change. But not if they’re silent.
Greenwashing crackdowns are valuable, but not if they are indiscriminate. Seele says there is a trend of attacking companies no matter how good their actions or intentions—which has brought about another phrase in the German media: “greenwashing truther,” for people who launch those kinds of accusations.
And in France, new greenwashing laws will place fines on companies for making misleading claims like being carbon neutral. While well-intended, such laws may serve to reduce greenwashing but heighten green hushing.
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