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Leon Kaye headshot

Will 2023 Be the Year Greenhushing Becomes a Thing?

By Leon Kaye

As the new year rolls in, expect to see more debate over greenhushing — that is, brands saying very little, if anything, about their sustainability work over concern they could get called out for “greenwashing.”

Among the reasons why greenhushing has entered the corporate sustainability lexicon is a recent South Pole survey that studied the work of more than 1,200 private companies worldwide. The research found that about one in four of those companies are now deciding not to discuss their climate change work barely, if at all.

So, while many chief sustainability officers will wring their hands at all this commentary and wonder how, how often and what to communicate yet again, there is a relatively simple strategy to curb the risks of being tagged with the greenhushing or greenwashing labels.

Sigh, that fear of being tagged as a greenwasher

“Welcome to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't world of sustainability communications,” Joel Makower, the chairman and co-founder of GreenBiz, wrote last fall. Such frustration is understandable. Who wouldn't throw their hands in the air when confronted with the possibility that a comms professional isn't communicating enough?

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Other leaders have sounded their concerns over greenhushing.

Noting that brands such as McDonald’s and Volkswagen had their share of headaches over accusations of greenwashing, Jonathan Small of Entrepreneur Magazine is among the commentators who have suggested that decisions to slow down any publicizing of corporate sustainability work could be a hallmark of 2023.

Why would greenhushing even be an option?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has also weighed in on the decision of more companies to lean toward silence rather than steady communications on their sustainability work as no company wants greenwashing accusations hurled in their direction. “Heightened sensitivity to such scrutiny might speak to the idea of not speaking at all,” wrote WEF’s John Letzing in November.

The U.S. is the perfect cauldron for greenhushing, in part due to rising anti-ESG rhetoric and even legislation coming from the far right — and it doesn’t help that many U.S. citizens know relatively little about ESG in the first place. If you don’t wish to incur the wrath of some politicians and also avoid a yet another social media flareup, it’s only logical that sustainability communications professionals would prefer to keep their heads down and go light on the press releases.

Nevertheless, companies shouldn’t be fearful of making too much noise — rather, they should focus on making less of one specific type of noise.

Less talk on goals, more attention on action

Here’s the deal: Companies are often quick to make bold proclamations about their sustainability goals. We’ve reached a point at which, quite frankly, all of the press releases read and sound the same after a while. And, if during 2023 a reporter covered in detail a company's climate action goal for 2030, what are the chances he or she will be around that same publication for a follow-up seven years from now? Or, who would even remember they wrote such a story down the road?

Witness the deluge of net-zero announcements in recent years. Together, all of these commitments sound impressive; the problem, however, is that many companies are nowhere near reaching these climate action goals. Further, one huge roadblock is that many of these promises rely on technologies that aren’t yet viable.

It also doesn’t help that one report from October found that of the world’s 160-plus most polluting companies, 80 percent of them have not made any science-aligned climate targets. That adds to the cynicism surrounding corporate sustainability, and makes it more difficult for the corporate sustainability professionals who are genuinely committed to taking on problems such as climate change. 

The bottom line is that we need less talk about goals and more discussion about actions and accomplishments. Anyone, any company, in all honesty can set a goal — the hard part is actually the incremental progress is needed as 2030 and 2040 draw closer. Corporate leaders need to understand that their stakeholders want to see results, even if they are modest. And if a company falls short of a climate action goal, it’s fair to disclose why that goal wasn’t met and what challenges were involved.

The problem isn’t that companies are communicating their sustainability work too much. It’s that there has been too much emphasis placed on goals and not enough updates on the hard work being done.

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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