Following the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, companies couldn’t wait to showcase their sustainability achievements. However, only a year later at COP27, there was a noticeable hesitancy among companies to publicise their sustainability data. The term "greenhushing" has been gaining more traction to describe this phenomenon. Why has geenhushing quickly become a considerable trend? And why is engaging in greenhushing risky business for brands? Today we would like to answer these burning questions.
What is Greenhushing?
Greenhushing is a term introduced by Treehugger in 2008 to refer to companies' intentional silence regarding their environmental efforts. This behavior is motivated by the fear of being accused of greenwashing, which involves overstating sustainable practices. (1)
Why is Greenhushing currently such a hot topic?
A recent survey revealed that 72% of all respondents said they had set a science-based-target (SBT) towards corporate sustainability, climate, or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. Corporate net zero emissions targets are obviously no longer the exception, they have become the rule. (2)
While that is encouraging news, the same report revealed that out of the 1200 private companies identified as global climate leaders in their survey, almost a quarter chose not to publicly disclose their sustainability accomplishments and progress. In fact, Jonathan Small for the Entrepreneur writes:
“In 2023, you can also expect that many companies won't publicly discuss their SBT.” (2)
Greenhushing in the F&B Industry
With a number of major food brands including McDonalds, Nestle and Starbucks having come under fire for alleged greenwashing, it is no surprise that many companies in the food sector have become shy about tooting their own sustainability horns.
However, this creates a vicious cycle. Research conducted by the site foodprocessing.com in the US from 2022 showed that almost half of shoppers in survey wanted to buy more sustainably but did not do so, due to a lack of trust, confusion around what the term sustainable encompasses and concerns regarding product performance and affordability.
Less than half, or only 42% of participants to be precise, said they trusted the country’s food system. They would more readily believe a watchdog who calls out greenwashing even without proof. (8)
It is clear, that there is a major lack of trust among consumers and being hush-hush about your net zero goals and sustainability efforts will only make the situation worse. So why do companies choose the path of silence?
Five Reasons Companies engage in Greenhushing
1. Fear of bad press due to social media and the fast news cycle
A number of major companies such as McDonald's and Volkswagen have faced negative media attention for greenwashing, which did serious damage to their reputation. The same reason can lead a grocery store not sharing its success of reducing its organic waste from storefronts in order to avoid drawing attention to other areas of its operations that may need improvement in terms of sustainability.
2. The public and stakeholders are becoming more educated
Now that both the public and company stakeholders are more informed with regards to sustainability targets and how they can be misleading or how companies can engage in greenwashing, they have become much more critical and suspicious of company’s sustainability claims. That means openly publicising sustainability goals nowadays can lead to more pushback from these groups. (5)
3. A growing threat of lawsuits over greenwashing
Oil companies and ESG investment funds have found themselves in legal hot waters as a result of greenwashing. This may deter companies from being more open, especially with the introduction of further regulation such as the EU’s Green Claims Directive on the horizon (3)
4. Lack of technical skills and confidence to communicate complex climate efforts
Tracking and communicating sustainability efforts is a highly complex undertaking. Some SMEs may worry about their ability to do this well and therefore rather choose not to speak up at all.
5. Uncertainty about achieving sustainability goals can lead to companies’ reluctance to discuss them
This is not surprising considering a report published in November 2022 by Accenture revealed that although over one-third of the world's biggest companies have pledged to achieve Net Zero, almost all of them (93%) will fall short of their targets unless they accelerate their efforts to reduce emissions by at least two-fold by 2030. (4)
Speaking to the FT, Michael Wilkins, head of Imperial College London’s Centre for Climate Finance and Investment, puts into words the current climate around communicating sustainability commitments.
“There is a high degree of scrutiny now around anything to do with professing your sustainability,” he says.
This comes at the same time as a general ESG backlash, that is the growing complaint that current ways of measuring ESG are subjective and lack standardization, making it difficult to compare companies and accurately assess their performance. Texas passed a 2021 law attacking ESG investing for harming the fossil fuel industry, and this year accused BlackRock and other financial groups of boycotting oil and gas. This volatile environment means a lot of companies are simply scared, argues Wilkins. (3)
However, some do not feel very sympathetic towards the greenhushers.
Planet Tracker’s director of research John Willis told edie that, rather than a genuine fear of showcasing sustainability, greenhushing now can instead be a more sinister attempt to withhold information in order to avoid scrutiny.
“Businesses might want more time to test solutions, maybe they’re not ready to show their hand yet and want to see if anyone else comes forward and gets tripped up by the information they share and they don’t want to make the same mistakes,” he tells edie. (6)
Why is greenhushing a problem?
Greenhushing can hinder the scrutiny of climate targets and discourage companies from setting more ambitious goals. If greenhushing becomes more widespread, it could even become more difficult to encourage companies that are lagging behind in terms of climate action, since there is no one for them to measure up against. She recommended that as long as companies are transparent about their progress and communicate it clearly, they can avoid making any mistakes. (3)
Transparency is the Best Policy
While the growing reluctance of companies to share detailed sustainability information in the face of media backlashes and reputational risk is somewhat unsurprising, engaging in greenhushing could do your company more harm than good.
A survey from Sensu Insight disovered that 86% of UK adults want more transparency from businesses regarding their environmental impact, their initiatives as well as their targets. (6)
What is more, 94% of consumers are more likely to be loyal to a brand that’s completely transparent. (7)
Aside from this, offending companies may even end up with regulators on their tail.
“The more rife greenhushing becomes, the more likely financial regulators are going to look at it and they could come down on big brands,” Planet Tracker’s Willis explained to edie. (6)
Lead the Way in Transparency with inoqo
If this article has put you off ever wanting to get caught up in greenhushing, then we are thrilled. We believe we are entering an age of transparency, and only the companies that choose to rise to the occasion will ultimately persevere. We would like to assist you in becoming completely transparent when it comes to your value chain – to keep your customers content and the regulators off your back.
inoqo is an AI-powered SaaS solution that can bring complete transparency to your production processes by calculating your product impact across multiple dimensions including climate, social and animal welfare. You can then communicate this information as well as your efforts to improve your impact hotspots to your consumers in order to win over your customers in this age of transparency.
Photo by Kristina Flour