Young Folks

Greenhushing: what is it and why is it becoming more common?

Picture this: a website littered with ‘eco friendly’ badges but no background information, packaging sold as ‘made from recycled materials’ even though only 30% of the plastic was recycled, and a social media presence marketing a brand as ‘ethical’ but further digging reveals only a vague mention of ‘sustainable practices’ at the bottom of a webpage. Sadly, these greenwashing tactics – where companies exaggerate or misrepresent their environmental efforts – are all too common and increasingly easy to spot.

But what about the flipside: companies that might have solid environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and targets, but keep quiet about them? This is a practice known as greenhushing, where companies stay silent on sustainability matters for a multitude of reasons including the fear of facing potential backlash. This isn’t some rare fringe phenomenon: a study by South Pole concluded that almost a quarter of large corporations that had sustainability protocols in place actively chose not to publicly talk about them.

Washing, hushing, wishing – what is greenhushing?

The world of sustainability and climate action is constantly evolving and so is the glossary of terms around it. These terms can easily be confused with each other when discussing greenwashing. 

  1. Greenwashing is when companies purposefully exaggerate, misrepresent or highlight the positive environmental effects of their products in the hopes of appearing more sustainable than they really are. Greenwashing exploits the growing interest for sustainably produced goods and services by misleading consumers in their decision-making.
  2. Greenhushing is essentially the mirror opposite of greenwashing: it happens when organisations that might have solid ESG policies in place opt to stay silent on progress and impact in the fear of criticism. You can think of greenhushing as a consequence for greenwashing: more greenwashing can eventually lead more companies to greenhushing as they hope to protect themselves from negative attention.
  3. Greenwishing indicates unintentional greenwashing: it relates to companies that have sustainability targets but don’t have the processes or resources to realistically achieve them. Greenwishing results from a lack of knowledge and experience when it comes to ESG reporting, and can be especially common among smaller companies with less resources. 

Why do companies greenhush?

While greenhushing isn’t a brand new global phenomenon, it’s become more well known and recognised as the efforts to crack down on greenwashing have amped up. 

Climate reporting is soon becoming mandatory for many Australian businesses, all the while the ACCC is cracking down on companies’ greenwashing claims. While these regulations are long overdue and essential to ensure crucial environmental progress, a prominent side effect is an increasing number of businesses choosing to stay silent in the fear of backlash or fines. As an example, ASIC recently fined Future Super $13k for breaching greenwashing laws when boasting about moving away from fossil fuels in a Facebook post.

Besides the fear of breaching regulations or becoming ‘cancelled’ in the court of public opinion, there are many other reasons companies resort to greenhushing. 

  • Being too late to the party: If a business has been operating for a while either without solid ESG targets or without communicating about them, it can seem daunting to suddenly change course. With the fear of appearing ingenuine or late to jump on the bandwagon, especially if your competitors are already well-known for their sustainability targets, it might seem easier to stay silent.
  • Not meeting previously set climate targets: Especially if a company is new to measuring emissions and setting clear targets, they might have set goals that aren’t achievable within set time frames. Rather than adjusting or communicating this, many are opting to instead scrap evidence of any targets from websites and marketing material, hoping that no one pays attention.
  • Wanting to keep it happy and light for consumers: With constant negative climate news, many people feel overwhelmed with guilt and personal responsibility when it comes to participating in the fight for climate action. Especially if brands feel they aren’t operating as sustainably as they’d hope, it’s easier to eliminate all sustainability talk in the hopes of appearing as an uncomplicated and easy option for consumers.
  • Having trouble communicating complex matters clearly: It’s one thing to set up solid emissions tracking systems and targets, but a whole other challenge to communicate these matters simply and clearly to consumers. With the EU moving to ban greenwashing terms and consumers becoming more savvy in distinguishing genuine sustainability claims from greenwashing, it can seem too complicated to find the right words to communicate progress.

Consequences of greenhushing

When companies resort to greenhushing, their silence directly supports and contributes to climate inaction and hinders the positive momentum many industries are experiencing with more mandatory climate reporting and necessary targets. In the current environment, silence often means complacency, and choosing inaction is not a sustainable (in any sense of the word) option for an organisation of any size.

Greenhushing also seriously undermines consumer trust and inadvertently aids the companies who are guilty of greenwashing, as they can appear as better alternatives than those not saying anything. The 2022 Climate Action Awareness Report showed 60% of consumers wanted transparency about companies’ climate action when choosing between products. Not only is greenhushing hindering overall positive progress, but it can also alienate a growing share of consumers who’re trying to make conscious purchasing decisions.

How to combat greenhushing and take genuine action

You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and if you’re not measuring it, it’s easy to see why you aren’t talking about it. The best way for companies to confidently talk about their social and environmental impact is to ensure they have transparent and tested ESG measuring and reporting processes in place. Third party certifications, like B Corp and Climate Active, are a great way to align yourself with publicly recognised and independently verified sustainability benchmarks. Being certified by a third party also gives you an advantage when mandatory climate reporting kicks in in Australia. 

There should also be increased focus on setting clear guidelines for communication and marketing strategies, both with internal teams and external partners like agencies. The ACCC provides a comprehensive guide to making environmental claims for companies to ensure they’re not greenwashing. Providing regular and accessible reports through websites and social media and transparently adjusting targets if they change, including in packaging labels, all help in building trust with both your stakeholders and consumers.

We have all learnt how harmful greenwashing is for the planet, consumers and companies themselves, but when we look at solutions, engaging in greenhushing will only delay the inevitable. With increased regulation and mandatory reporting, talk about climate action and initiatives certainly isn’t going anywhere. At a time when ambitious climate goals are already long overdue, silence might speak much louder than intended.

Want to take action but don’t know where to start? We’ve created a deck of Positive Impact Cards that’s packed with 24 insights and ideas for making meaningful change in your organisation.

Sources:

South Pole, “Net Zero and Beyond”, https://www.southpole.com/publications/net-zero-and-beyond , Accessed on March 5, 2024

The Treasury, “Mandatory climate-related financial disclosures”, https://treasury.gov.au/sites/default/files/2024-01/c2024-466491-policy-state.pdf , Accessed March 5, 2024

The Guardian, “ACCC begins greenwashing crackdown on companies’ false environmental claims” , https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/oct/11/accc-begins-greenwashing-crackdown-on-companies-false-environmental-claims  ,Accessed on March 5, 2024

Australian Financial Review, “Future Super cops greenwashing fine for ‘misleading’ ad”,  https://www.afr.com/companies/financial-services/future-super-promoter-cops-greenwashing-fine-for-misleading-ad-20230502-p5d4us#:~:text=The%20corporate%20watchdog%20has%20slapped,about%20divesting%20from%20fossil%20fuels. , Accessed on March 5, 2024

Climate Partner, “Climate Action Awareness Report”, https://www.climatepartner.com/en/knowledge/insights/climate-action-awareness-report-2022 , Accessed on March 5, 2024
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, “Making environmental claims – a guide for business”, https://www.accc.gov.au/about-us/publications/making-environmental-claims-a-guide-for-business , Accessed on March 8, 2024.

Our Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula studios are open 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday. If you’re a brand in the business of doing good, we’d love to hear from you.

MARKETING SERVICES
Contact us

GENERAL ENQUIRIES
hello@youngfolks.com.au

0492 883 664

MORNINGTON PENINSULA
Studio 3
13-15 Thompson St
Frankston
VIC 3199

MELBOURNE
10-20 Gwynne St
Cremorne
VIC 3121

SOCIAL MEDIA