You’ve probably heard of greenwashing, but have you heard of greenhushing? It’s the latest term gaining traction in the ESG world, plastered across more and more news headlines and conference agendas each day. But what is greenhushing, and why should you care? What makes this term different from any of the other (seemingly endless) new acronyms and vocabulary words that pop up every day in this space?
Much like “ESG” and “greenwashing,” the term “greenhushing” was actually coined years ago, but only recently began gaining widespread use. First used by Jerry Stifelman and Sami Grover in a now-defunct 2008 blog post for Treehugger.com, greenhushing refers to when companies choose to stay silent about their sustainability efforts out of concern for potential backlash or criticism. The New York Times’ Ephrat Livni describes it as “a cousin of greenwashing” that stems from companies fearing greenwashing critiques from the left and anti-ESG critiques from the right—so instead they choose to say nothing at all.
But why now? Haven’t people been accusing companies of greenwashing for years? What’s changed in the last couple of months?
One key factor is a growing fear among brands of being accused of greenwashing. With growing consumer/public interest in sustainability, increased attention on climate change amid more frequent extreme weather events, and social media offering activists easy access to an online “town square” in which to shame companies, it’s no surprise that company executives are scared to call themselves climate friendly.
Companies can no longer rely on lazily slapping together a “Happy Earth Day!” social post and printing a made-up environmental certification on their products to keep customers (and investors) happy. As public awareness of greenwashing grows, so too does the standard brands must meet to be seen as sustainable. Brands fear being taken to task for not being perfectly sustainable. And soon, it may not just be public accusations of greenwashing that brands risk, but fines too—across the pond, the European Union is hoping to pass formal rules detailing how and when brands can label their products as green, a proposal that could have a ripple effect across the globe.
Conversely, with greater attention on sustainability, and on all things ESG, an anti-ESG backlash has started to take hold. In the United States, Republican politicians at the federal, state, and city levels are grabbing onto the hostility to build their own profiles. While a gridlocked Congress means most federal anti-ESG efforts are likely to be stymied, on the state and local level we’re seeing conservatives pursue efforts to ban pension investments in ESG funds, pull assets from fund managers that are seen as being too deferential to ESG concerns, and more.
The criticism has only intensified in recent months, following the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposal last year to implement rules around climate disclosures—a hotly contested change that GOP officials claim oversteps the agency’s mandate. With Republicans taking a page from the Trump playbook and resorting to naming and shaming companies that they believe are taking sustainability too far, firms like Vanguard are electing to duck and cover, leaving the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative in hopes of avoiding critiques from the right…which, of course, has only led to criticism from the left. ESG has gone mainstream, and like everything else in America, it’s now at the center of a culture war.
With all this going on, it’s understandable that companies are instinctively running scared from talking about sustainability. Indeed, an October 2022 survey from climate consulting firm South Pole found that one in four companies with science-based net zero emissions targets do not plan to publicize their goals. Confusingly, South Pole also found that more net zero goals are being set than before in prior years. This tells us that companies understand the need to implement sustainability strategies, and are moving to do so, but fear talking about it.
With no end in sight to the politicization of ESG or greenwashing accusations, understanding the greenhushing trend (and the underlying forces behind it) is vital for communications professionals today. While it might be tempting to advise clients to simply stick their heads in the sand and quietly implement sustainability efforts without talking about it, I think there’s something to be said for companies electing to take a stance. PR pros know the value and the power of words more than most people, and brands can elect to use their voices to amplify their actions here. Climate change is a real and pressing threat to our society, and we can and should be asking more of companies whose policies, products, services, and practices influence that threat.
But what of the reputational risk? Despite what the media and political hubbub over climate change might indicate, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly seven in ten Americans “support the U.S. becoming carbon neutral by 2050” and two-thirds of Americans believe that “large business and corporations are doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” On a global scale, Pew also found that three in four people across 19 countries “view global climate change as a major threat to their country.” On the recruitment front, a recent IBM study found that 69% of the potential workforce is “more likely to accept a job with an employer they consider to be environmentally sustainable.”
This data makes it clear—there is immense potential upside for brands that establish themselves as leaders in sustainability, and who take the initiative to lead the conversation here. Just look at Patagonia and its rock solid customer loyalty, an example that’s generated case study upon case study for marketers and MBAs alike.
While it might seem like the sky is falling in ESG land, it’s important to remember that the loudest voices are rarely the majority. Effective communicators can guide their clients through the storm by prioritizing honest, clear messaging that acknowledges their weaknesses while laying out their strategies to fix those issues. PR teams will also need to remain hypervigilant of the latest regulatory/political developments and media stories in the space, as the public battle over sustainability continues. Actions speak louder than words, but in the era of greenhushing, companies will need to back up their actions with words, otherwise they risk being left behind.
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