Greenwashing Has Morphed Into Green Hushing, and Both Practices Need to Go

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Keeping quiet—even when you’re doing great things—doesn’t help our collective climate efforts.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and in the corporate world, it’s motivating leaders and their communications teams to keep quiet on their sustainability and climate initiatives. These teams fear greenwashing accusations, or fear alienating certain stakeholder groups, or simply fear the downside is larger than the upside of being public with their progress on their goals. This is leading more corporations to green hush.

Greenwashing has long been rooted in our environmental lexicon. We all know what it refers to: companies’ deceptive practices in order to present themselves as environmentally friendly and responsible when, in reality, they fall short of any sort of genuine commitment to sustainability.  Lying about sustainable business practices not only misleads consumers, two-thirds of whom are willing to pay more for sustainable products, but also draws public scrutiny and sometimes outrage and disillusionment, not to mention lawsuits, such as ones filed against companies including Dasani, Kroger, and Whole Foods.

However, a new-ish trend has been on the rise, where companies are doing the opposite: launching valid, authentic sustainability initiatives—but keeping quiet about it. This green-hushing trend is revealing companies purposely downplaying their sustainability goals and current initiatives, even though they are well-intentioned, well-engineered, and well-underway. Whether it’s companies wrongfully committing greenwashing or impressive companies engaging in green-hushing, both must stop. Both “strategies” erode public trust, slow the adoption of new technologies, and halt much-needed investment in the cleantech and climate tech industry.

“Don’t Say ESG!”

Sadly, politics are often involved. Faced with the threats of tarnished reputations and legal trouble, some companies green hush, choosing not to communicate their climate initiatives at all for fear of a backlash from certain groups. While it makes sense for the industry to tone down and avoid potentially uncertain claims, silence is not the answer, as it can skew progress toward a collective, sustainable culture.

“Less public-facing communication limits knowledge-sharing to industry peers and consumers, which could result in missed opportunities for collaboration and engagement,” notes Helene Smits in Sourcing Journal. “It could also give the impression that sustainability leaders are failing to lead.”

An analysis of 1,200 companies published last fall by Swiss consultancy South Pole found that one in four planned to go green but then “go dark.” In other words, they intend to keep their climate commitments under the radar. However, companies have long felt a need to occasionally turn down the volume on their sustainability focus. This is understandable, given the political right’s interest in banning ESG investing or stopping renewable energy projects (wind turbines cause cancer, right?)

There’s also pressure from the political left. “A bunch of people are yelling at [companies] from the outside for not getting there fast enough,” explains Jason Jay, director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan. This potential for being called out “creates an incentive to be a little quieter.”

A framework for PR practitioners

So what can companies and their comms teams do? While no company wants to be caught making outlandish claims (greenwashing), they should also not feel compelled to keep quiet about it (green hush). To mitigate the potential for backlash while still maintaining a positive perception with customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders, companies should consider the following.

Let the numbers tell a relatable story

Number of units deployed, number of people and households affected, number of kilowatt hours of energy generated: numbers tell a story. And it’s not just journalists who love numbers (“data journalism”). Ordinary consumers and potential buyers of a product and investors in a company need numbers to justify a purchase or investment. Well-documented, defendable metrics give credibility.

If the numbers are confusing, try to put them in layperson’s terms or relatable to your audience. For example, instead of simply listing the number of kilowatt hours of energy generated by a renewable energy project, explain how much energy that might be to power a certain number of homes in a community for 30 days.

Explain what the technology does and does not do

While no cleantech or climate tech CEO wants to tell their audiences what their company’s solution doesn’t do, being transparent and honest can go a long way in convincing multiple stakeholders of the product’s merits. While avoiding hyperbole, a comms team can devise language and strategies to communicate the right-fit message for a product or service.

When in doubt, underpromise—but overdeliver

Launch or funding announcements or LinkedIn posts can sound exciting, but emotions must be kept in check.  It’s better to start with announcements, messages, or campaigns that advocate for a modest start. Then, the company should plan for a follow-up with news or a case study on “how it’s going.” Journalists like numbers, but even more so when those numbers demonstrate actual program or project success. It’s a bad habit across sectors for companies to have impressive projects they never talk about publicly because a retrospective case study was never created.

The inability to please everyone

Companies green hush because they think that talking creates trouble: it’s simply better to keep quiet than risk being called out for an inadequate solution. Most electric utility companies fall into this camp.

However, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy carries its own risks. When the collective efforts of everyone are needed to stop global warming and create a liveable planet for future generations, the hesitation in mentioning sustainable efforts has real consequences. The transparency of messaging is nothing new. But this time around, corporate silence could lead to climate catastrophe.


This piece was originally published on SG Voice.