In a world flooded with sustainability marketing, one French home-appliances maker stands apart for its modesty. Unbeknownst to many, this company offers a significant environmental benefit — every customer who purchases its appliances gains access to the possibility of repairing them for an entire decade. This eco-conception approach aligns with the principles of the circular economy, minimising waste by prolonging product lifespans. Surprisingly, the company has chosen not to flaunt this unique perk, even though none of its competitors offer a similar advantage.
This practice of staying silent about positive environmental efforts is a form of “greenhushing”, where companies deliberately downplay their sustainability initiatives to avoid greenwashing accusations. In the aftermath of the COP26 climate summit, in 2021, companies rushed to eagerly showcase their eco-friendly attributes. However, their subsequent climate pledges left them susceptible to allegations of exaggerated or misleading claims.
It is hard to spot, but the phenomenon of greenhushing is on the rise, with some companies refraining from publicly disclosing their climate targets in particular. A 2022 survey by the climate consultancy firm South Pole revealed that a quarter of 1,200 companies across 12 countries chose not to publicise their net-zero emissions targets, despite a significant increase in the adoption of science-based targets from the previous year’s survey, rising to 72% of respondents.
So why do companies engage in greenhushing, even when they have solid evidence to support their claims? To gain insights into the trend and its consequences, we interviewed Julien Schmitt, associate professor of sustainability and marketing at ESCP’s Paris campus.
It is time for companies to shed the cloak of greenhushing and stand tall as champions of sustainability.Prof. Julien Schmitt
Accusations of dishonesty fuel greenhushing
According to him, there are numerous reasons that explain why some companies keep their climate strategies discreet. Often, it’s due to their lack of confidence or ability to effectively communicate the complexities of the science involved, particularly for smaller businesses with limited internal CSR and marketing resources. Even larger firms face challenges in this regard though, says Schmitt.
“While a lot of companies display ambitious carbon-reduction targets, those remain targets and are not always accompanied by policies that could realistically achieve those targets. Many big companies have previously communicated on such matters without evidence or proof of their environmental claims and have, logically, faced a backlash. As a result, some of them now prefer to remain silent, even if a specific innovation could demonstrate significant progress. They opt not to mention it, fearing accusations of dishonesty.”
Furthermore, he highlights another potential reason for greenhushing is that numerous companies don’t consider it financially beneficial to invest in promoting their green initiatives. For starters, sustainability has become a commodified concept, and the abundance of eco-friendly products in the market has led some companies to question whether it truly sets their brands apart.
Second, sustainability may not be what consumers want to hear about. “There are many products for which consumers value benefits linked to emotions or desirability, and for which the down-to-earth sustainability considerations may not correspond to the marketing positioning they want to build. Greenhushing can be a marketing decision when you think it’s not what consumers want, or some brands think it’s not as differentiating as it used to be,” says Schmitt.
Finally, some green initiatives are kept quiet because they imply changes that are negatively seen by a segment of the population. “For instance, some restaurants decide to increase vegetarian dishes and reduce the amount of meat-based food in order to drop their carbon footprint; similarly some cities are trying to limit the usage of cars in order to reduce pollution linked to car traffic. These initiatives may be negatively perceived by some people who fear for their traditional way of life. In that case, it is often easier to change things discreetly.”
While the first priority is obviously to track and denounce greenwashing practices, it is also important to tackle the issue of greenhushing. Our expert says that companies should recognise the benefits of learning how to promote their environmental credentials and embrace sustainability for genuine reasons.
Enhanced reputation, higher investor interest and improved employee engagement are among the advantages of promoting genuine eco-friendly practices.
While a lot of companies display ambitious carbon-reduction targets, those remain targets and are not always accompanied by policies that could realistically achieve those targets.
How greenhushing causes societal harm
The practice of greenhushing carries negative implications for society. Firstly, there’s a risk that if brands perceive little value in publicising their environmental progress, they may not invest as much in it. Schmitt warns, “If companies that actually want to make progress do not know how to differentiate from greenwashers, they will not see a significant financial return, and it might deter them from making the substantial investments needed to advance climate strategies.”
This situation could impede progress at a critical time, when there is an urgent need to accelerate efforts, particularly in the face of extreme weather events, he adds. The United Nations has issued warnings of a new era of “global boiling”, for instance, July 2023 was the hottest month on record.
Another societal risk lies in the possibility that brands, by refraining from investing in informative campaigns, might fail to raise awareness among consumers about the importance of making greener choices that ultimately benefit the planet. As Schmitt says: “When we are exposed to more accurate information about environmental issues, we are more likely to change our behaviour. So greenhushing is detrimental, as it deprives people of the knowledge that could drive positive change.”
Finally, Schmitt explains that there is an important mimetic effect in the adoption of sustainability measures by firms, which can be inhibited by greenhushing. “Firms often adopt sustainability practices because they are inspired by other firms who have successfully adopted such practices. This is another reason why it is important to publicise actual and sincere green initiatives.”
Tips for communicating with transparency and authenticity
For companies opting to communicate, our expert says it’s essential to heed the same advice for avoiding greenwashing: place a strong emphasis on transparency and authenticity in your communications. “You should validate your progress at the level of that progress; do not oversell it but, equally, do not undersell it,” he says.
He further suggests that companies should provide consumers with the full picture, avoiding any omission of material information. “Most importantly, companies should focus their efforts on sustainability issues that are at the core of their environmental impact. For instance, if your business model largely relies on fossil fuel, please do not brag about minor changes such as the suppression of paper receipts or the use of reusable cups. In that case, it is better to remain silent. Instead, if you find a way to move away from fossil fuel, then don’t be shy about it!”.
Schmitt also recommends that companies consider seeking external validation of their claims, to ensure they are credible and trustworthy. “You might collaborate on advertising campaigns with NGOs or even activists deeply involved in environmental issues, as sustainability is a complex topic to master. If your messages are validated by people who have high expectations in terms of firms’ sustainability actions, it means that you are on the right track.” In a world where sustainability is an urgent imperative, he concludes that embracing a transparent and genuine approach is key to making a lasting impact. “It is time for companies to shed the cloak of greenhushing and stand tall as champions of sustainability.
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