Greenwashing – a term that is widely understood and feared in the marketing world – has now gained awareness and broader reach into public consciousness. Consumers know when what a brand says about its sustainability and what it actually does are two different things.
French tyre company, Michelin once made a public commitment to plant rubber trees and re-green over 90,000 hectares of land in Indonesia. That was in 2015, and it was hailed as the company's flagship commitment to sustainability. Last year, an investigation found that the project, which was financed by green bonds, wasn't sustainable at all.
Greenwashing scandals like this, impact on consumer trust and can make it difficult to buy into corporate sustainability promises. A misleading claim, of course, can go beyond damaging the brand, as penalties for greenwashing are now being enforced by regulators in some industries.
Whilst greenwashing scandals have exposed organisations that give the impression of being sustainable, forward- thinking and environmentally friendly, whilst being anything but; the emergence of a counter-trend to limit or even silence any communication about environmental goals is extremely problematic too. And that trend is Green Hushing.
So what is green hushing and where is it happening?
Green hushing is the deliberate downplay of sustainability programmes where companies actively avoid and may even refuse to talk about climate initiatives, achievements, and targets. The motives to green hush can vary, and we have to consider that a lot of this behaviour is happening as a result of fear – fear of saying the wrong thing, not being perceived to do enough, not meeting (sometimes) impossibly high standards. Green hushing isn’t always a covert cover-up job, even if it will be some of the time.
The result of this is obvious –- it means that any positive efforts are lost in the ether, there’s limited public consciousness of what is being done and therefore, from industry leaders to the people on the street, – inspiration is lacking. Organisations can both be being quietly progressive whilst limiting the external reach of what they’re doing, or they can cover a poor effort by pleading that they’d rather keep their sustainability programmes private.
As a trend that is essentially keeping things under wraps, it’s tricky to assess how widespread of a problem this is. South Pole highlighted that nearly 25% of 1,200 companies that have large sustainability programmes are not making efforts to publicise their achievements. The rate was highest in Belgium, where 41% of companies with science-based climate targets were not talking about them. South Pole described this as a ‘“concerning trend’”.
Green hushing happens because sustainability is daunting
We know that adopting sustainable initiatives can be daunting. It can often be a monumental task that requires hundreds of stakeholders to be bought in and can take time to get right. We recently worked closely with our partners at Kite Insights to uncover how organisations can both safeguard their future and achieve growth at the same time. In our collaborative work, we interviewed over a dozen senior business sustainability leaders from CPG and pharmaceutical industries about their experience with sustainable initiatives. One of the leaders we interviewed said: ‘“we have set a vision but it’s a tough nut to crack to embed the behaviours, processes and thinking to make it a reality’”. We hear this a lot – doing it right, meeting the vision, it’s a monumental task for many organisations even if the vision and the will is there.
…and of course, it’s even harder to be bold or outwardly vocal about what you’re doing, particularly if your product or model is fundamentally unsustainable in itself.
How green hushing slows down climate action
The challenge, of course, is that if everyone retreats and keeps what they’re doing to themselves, then the whole purpose is missed. Whether the aims of keeping green initiatives quiet are noble or not, the climate always ends up losing.
Lack of accountability: Without external commitment, companies may lag behind internal goals or let them move fall to the back-burner when more pressing items arise. For example, if a recycling program runs into technical difficulties, it becomes easier to deprioritise an urgent fix if the public isn’t watching.
Profit-first: We’re founded on the principle that if you do right by the planet and people, profit will come, it’s when profit comes first and people and planet follow that mistakes are often made and the latter is what suffers. Even if sustainability initiatives are strong, keeping quiet about them has the potential impact of leaving behind consumers who want to buy from sustainable brands. Missed opportunities to i Inspire: Perhaps the most substantial cost of green hushing is the lessening of attention brought to major environmental issues. Not only does green hushing deter companies from talking about these problems, but it also stops them from setting a brilliant example.
Absence of healthy competition: External pressures help us to grow and move faster:, the pace of any business is often dictated by how fast its competitors are going and how progressive they are being. Without public exposure for green initiatives, this healthy competition is lost.
While it may shield a company from accusations of greenwashing, the lack of perceived sustainability efforts comes at a high cost. Of course, there's good reason for companies to feel hesitant about sharing or over-sharing their climate initiatives. So how do you find a balance?
Avoiding green hushing – three simple steps to get started with sustainability
In our Sustainability and Commercial Growth – Myth or Reality? report in collaboration with Kite Insights, we found that organisations were hugely committed to their sustainability agendas but also recognised it to be a complex and layered effort; one that requires collaboration –- often with competitors – to get it right.
Make sustainability relevant to your core business
Sustainability strategy has to be core business strategy, especially if you are going beyond basic sustainability hygiene factors (e.g. sustainable packaging).
Those companies who have been successful in putting sustainability at the heart of commercial strategy have linked it to category benefits.
A good place to start is the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Which one is most relevant to your category? How are your products better than others at delivering the category benefit, relevant to the sustainability issue?
Don’t solve the problem alone
Identify companies and organisations to partner with, including competitors. Doing this will help change wider practices in industry and ultimately enable better purchase and consumption behaviour.
This doesn’t mean having to share company intellectual property – share insights and learnings and, supply chain processes to enable and accelerate the desired change.
Agree the role each partner can play in enabling the desired end goal. A collaborative approach could mitigate the feeling of boldly putting your efforts out in the world for all to see – when you’re partnering with others, the risk is shared and feels less daunting.
Be honest and transparent about progress
Perhaps the most important thing is to be honest about what you are doing and acknowledge what still needs to be done.
Share your ambitions, your successes and your failures. Ask for help to enable your mission. You will attract a whole new group of people in this way, who want to be part of doing what's right.
At Oxford, we love helping organisations embed sustainability in the way they do business, and make bold decisions and take action to become more sustainable.
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