Greenwashing. What is there to say that hasn’t been said already in the decades since 1986, when environmentalist Jay Westerveld first used the term to describe the discrepancy between a hotel’s overall business model and its messaging towards guests? Turns out, a lot.
What Is Greenwashing & Is It Always Purposeful?
Greenwashing is a phenomenon when there is a discrepancy between what is being said of one’s environmental impact and what’s being done (i.e. one’s actual impact). Most often, that looks like misplaced blame and false dichotomies (individuals VS biggest polluters), displaying partial data, megalomaniac goals taken out of context, or paired with a too-narrow definition of sustainability (think: carbon tunnel vision, omitting the social and ethical dimension of sustainability from the conversation, etc).
As the years went by, the awareness ofthe concept was growing, but not paired with the understanding of it: according to a survey from 2021, although 93% of participants considered good ecological behavior as very important, 53% estimated they weren’t able to tell between true and false green claims.
Unfortunately, this discrepancy creates a perfect breeding ground for the rise of falsely sustainable options, usually offered as pacifiers to lull us into inaction, all while believing that consumer swaps and not a sociopolitical overhaul are what will solve the climate crisis.
What we’re seeing is usually either:
Greenwashing-by-mistake, where individuals, companies, non-profits, or public institutions – motivated by good intentions – use broad terms to make sustainability-related statements about their products based on a narrow set of criteria (think: a product is marketed as “eco-friendly” just because it’s made out of cotton, or grown locally).
Greenwashing-by-design, where the world’s greatest polluters invest a lot of money to nurture distrust in positive science and climate skepticism, all in order to be allowed to carry on with business as usual (think: oil companies convincing you that your individual footprint matters more than your social dimension of activism, where you’d put pressure on the decision-makers to keep fossil fuels in the ground and prohibit exploitative action)
In both cases, it requires a response in the form of continuous skill-building of the public’s greenwashing and recognizing muscle paired with the adoption of appropriate legislation. For example, once the EU’s Green Claims Directive goes into force, it will make it impossible for companies to use environmental claims without substantiating them with external verifications and life cycle assessments. That means that by the time the Directive reaches full-scale implementation across all Member States, the businesses operating within the EU will need to have systems in place that will make it possible to verify all necessary data, as well as trained staff and collaborators who know what can be said and what can’t.
In this climate, whether due to fear of inadequacy, the desire to avoid accountability, or other reasons entirely, some companies have been deciding to stay silent. That is known as greenhushing: a situation where a business doesn’t disclose any data on its environmental impact.
Now, is greenhushing greenwashing? There is much debate on the subject, but here’s my take on it.
Is Greenhushing Greenwashing?
Greenhushing is a term that first appeared in 2008 on Tree Hugger, in a (currently unavailable) article by brand strategist Jerry Stifelman and writer Sami Grover.
As greenhushing tells us, the problem can exist not only when we put a spotlight on the environmentally responsible aspect of our work and sweep the rest under a carpet, but also when we stay silent and refuse to disclose any information on the environmental impact of our work.
However, does that qualify as a branch of greenwashing or is this a different problem entirely?
I believe that, just like with everything else in sustainability, it depends on the context.
According to a Planet Tracker report on corporate greenwashing from January 2023, greenhushing constitutes one of the six heads of the greenwashing hydra, a monster that hinders progress in climate-friendly action. The authors describe greenhushing as under-reporting or hiding a company’s sustainability credentials to evade investor and public scrutiny. They also provide data to expand on their choice to include greenhushing in types of greenwashing: “Nearly a quarter of the 1,200 global sustainability executives surveyed by South Pole were found to not publicize their climate ‘achievements and milestones beyond the bare minimum or as required by, for example, the Science Based Targets initiative’.”
The authors also address the argument that seeing greenhushing as greenwashing might be an unusual choice. However, they shed light on how greenhushing’s subtle tactics, like implying stronger sustainability performance than officially stated, can be used to gain a green valuation uplift without proper investor scrutiny, potentially affecting investment decisions.
So, just like with other types of greenwashing, this can result in green funds being wasted on supporting initiatives that don’t encourage ecosystem restoration and climate crisis mitigation.
Let’s discuss when greenhushing isn’t greenwashing. I believe this to be the case when a particular organization isn’t even aware that sustainability is a topic they are supposed to talk about. For example, over the course of 2023, I’ve had the chance to meet many small businesses that are doing wonderful things and could serve as examples to their communities that you don’t have to go far to come across a good model to follow. When I ask them why they aren’t communicating it externally, I usually hear arguments along the lines of:
“It’s something we do for our own values, not to appease anyone”;
“People who are our target audience don’t want to listen about that, they only care if we are affordable/reliable/insert another belief that is not related to environmental values”;
“Social media are for selling and talking directly about our offer, not about the story behind it and the valuesof us who run the company”.
To address this type of issue, let’s cover two very important points:
First of all, in times of content overload, the businesses weconnect with are the businesses with a story that resonates with us. There are dozens of books and courses on the market nowadays teaching people how to craft a story around their brand, in order to become more memorable. According to SproutSocial, “nearly two thirds (64%) of consumers want brands to connect with them, while just under half (49%) expect brands to bring people together toward a common goal”.
Second, people around us might be much more interested in sustainability than we realize: a survey of 10,281 consumers worldwide showed that 78% agree that environmental sustainability is important, the concept of sustainability appeals to them, and that they want to lead more sustainable lives. That’s almost 4 in 5 people. It begs the question: are we underestimating our audiences if we conclude that they wouldn’t be interested in sustainability before even trying to discuss it with them? Allow yourself to sit with this question for a while.
So now that we’ve covered the key concepts, let’s address the common ways forward that can help you evade both greenwashing and greenhushing.
How To Navigate Both?
Whether you’re currently more concerned about greenwashing or greenhushing, avoiding them starts at the same point: insisting on two-way communication with the public.
First of all, talk about sustainability: what you’re doing and whatyou’re not doing. If you’re alreadycommunicating your sustainability efforts, this implies opening yourself up to answering the questions that might shine a light on the shadows in your business rather than intensify the spotlight. If you are currently on the greenhushing train, this means breaking the silence and beginning to address sustainability on your website, social media, product packaging, etc.
Make it two-way: the age of the press release is dead and you’re either communicating in a two-way manner or missing out on opportunities to establish trust with your audience. What does two-way communication look like in the context of environmental conversations? Supporting your non-generalized green claims with data, posting progress reports on promises made within campaigns, answering questions related to supply chain, choice of materials, financing methods, current capacity to implement changes, partnerships and collaboration policy… In case you are worried about the lack of data at your disposal, start there and communicate it – saying openly that there is a lack of information on a specific subject is in itself a piece of information. Everything is better than the silent treatment.
When caught in inaction or inappropriate action, don’t disappear – discuss the ways of going forward better. Speaking of the silent treatment: if there’s one thing I hate, it’s brand promises that stay at the apology level and don’t go a step forward towards proposing ways to mitigate the damage and put in place steps that would make it so that the mistake doesn’t repeat. Being open about this also allows for connecting with potential partners that could help you implement changes in ways you could never do on your own. Allow yourself to be seen in imperfect action and treat your business as a work in progress.
Navigating greenwashing and greenhushing means swimming in nuanced waters, where the legislation is playing catchup with all the different ways in which someone’s actions can be presented as better than they are. It means diving into those waters with the belief that your actions matter. Your business can become a role model for others in your industry, whether on a local or international level. Your customers can learn from you and you can learn from them. In that interaction, the most beautiful climate solutions can come to life. And that, alone, is worth breaking the silence.
Andjela Boskovic is an environmental communications consultant for small businesses and non-profits. She helps her clients use social media for communicating sustainability in an effective and greenwashing-void way. These days, you’ll usually find mixing working on her first book with researching recipes that can be made in 30 minutes or less and reading fantasy novels. She is based in Podgorica, Montenegro. Online, you’ll find her on LinkedIn.