Greenhushing: Should companies speak up or shut up?

by John Stapel

The latest sustainability meme has to do with companies saying too little about their sustainability commitments and achievements.

Yes, you read that right. Welcome to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't world of sustainability communications.

A relatively new term, "greenhushing" — which refers to companies under-communicating their sustainability activities — is showing up in a lot of places, at least on the internet, that great playground of dubious ideas and opinions. Whether it proves to be yet another short-lived phenomenon (see: "plastic-washing") or the next trouble spot for companies is unclear.

But one thing is certain: Companies need to pay attention.

Welcome to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't world of sustainability communications.

The rise of the greenhushing meme got some heft recently with the publication of a report by the sustainability consultancy South Pole. The report, which surveyed "over 1,200 global executives to understand what drives their big climate commitments,” unearthed “a surprising trend”: Nearly a quarter of those surveyed say they do not plan to publicize their science-based net-zero emissions reduction targets "beyond the bare minimum or as required."

"This is concerning," the authors concluded. "More than ever, we need those making headway on sustainability targets to inspire others to make a start, to help shift mindsets and then behaviors."

No doubt. And therein lies a treacherous landscape for companies.

Greenhushing is the obvious counterpart to greenwashing, a term coined by Greenpeace in the early 1990s to describe "cynical, superficial, public relations marketing" aimed at projecting a false environmental corporate image. The term has become so broadly applied that it can be hurled against just about anything and anyone. The threat of being labeled a greenwasher has become so worrisome that many companies lay low when it comes to sustainability communications, keeping their corporate heads below the parapet lest they suffer the slings and arrows of critics.

Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Are companies saying too little about what they do? Some critics seem to think so. Hence, greenhushing.

It's hardly a new idea. Before greenhushing was "greenmuting," a term I credit to my friend Bob Langert, former head of sustainability at McDonald's (and later a GreenBiz editor at large). I can't quite carbon-date the actual coinage, but I wrote a chapter on greenmuting in my 2008 book, "Strategies for the Green Economy." Given that I actually penned the book in 2007, we're talking at least a decade and a half, and probably a few years more, since greenmuting first appeared.

As we all know, such ideas have a nasty habit of being, well, recycled.

Lost opportunity

There are three reasons companies have historically been reluctant to talk much about their environmental activities.

First, most environmental achievements are about "doing less bad" rather than "doing good." Did your company produce less single-use plastic packaging this year over last? That’s great, but that's a tough story to tell: We pollute less than we used to. There's little honor in ravaging the planet incrementally less, despite the fact that incremental change is pretty much the only thing large companies are capable of. Even the seemingly heroic companies — Patagonia and the carpet company Interface come to mind — are on a multi-decade path toward their goals, which they admit they will likely never fully achieve.

So, how do you explain that to the masses, or even to investors, without underwhelming them?

Second, most company achievements aren't part of the value proposition of what they sell. Has your company eliminated employee air travel? Achieved zero waste across all operations? Donated a nickel per widget sold to Ducks Unlimited each April? Invested a gazillion dollars in climate tech? All good stuff, but nothing customers will probably consider in deciding whether to buy your product or service. (True, that's changing a bit in the business-to-business world, where companies are being held more accountable for their impacts, but such efforts are still more of a side dish than the main course.)

So, how do you celebrate those necessary but insufficient achievements without appearing to miss the larger point?

Third, talking about these things can set you up for criticism, including the dreaded greenwashing charge. For example, when you talk about what you’re doing right, you sometimes illuminate problems the public didn’t know you have. As I said, greenwashing has become a catchall for anything someone doesn't understand or appreciate about a company's sustainability communications. It’s also become an arena for increased litigation. That makes a compelling case for keeping mum: If you don’t say anything at all, how can anyone criticize, let alone sue, you? In Europe, there are new regulations governing misleading or exaggerated statements, as codified recently by the European Union.

The critics out there — the ones who are quick to shout 'Greenwashing!' — want to have it both ways.

In that regard, there's now a fourth reason companies may talk less, even as they do more: Regulators are watching. In the United States, forthcoming climate-disclosure rules by the Securities and Exchange Commission could further muzzle company sustainability statements as they fear the wrath of investors and regulators, not to mention activists and the media, if they aren’t perceived to be measuring up. I don't see any scenario where such rules will lead to a renaissance in sustainability messaging, probably to more greenhushing.

That’s a shame, and a lost opportunity. If sustainable business is to move from the incremental to the substantive, companies will need to be loud and proud — not just to customers but also to other stakeholders and value-chain partners. Doing the work of creating a decarbonized, circular and just economy is hard enough without having to do it on the DL. We need companies to talk about this stuff, openly and authentically.

Easy to say, very hard to do. The complexities of deciding what to communicate, let alone how to do so, have long stymied companies large and small. The roadway is littered with the carcasses of communications campaigns that either aimed too high — leading to pushback, or worse — or too low, garnering a collective shrug from their intended audiences. Successful sustainability communications and marketing campaigns are few and far between.

The critics — the ones quick to shout "Greenwashing!" — are trying to have it both ways. They want companies to be vocal about what they’re doing but are ready to pounce if companies appear to overstep. They seem to want companies to communicate only successful or highly impactful messages, however those are defined. Suffice to say, such messages are more the exception than the rule.

You gotta have CRED

So, what's the sweet spot between greenwashing and greenhushing? Again, I return to my 2008 book. Sadly, much of its counsel remains relevant a decade and a half later, a telling indication that the field of sustainability communications hasn’t evolved much.

In Chapter 29, I proffered the CRED strategy, devised by a now-defunct consultancy called GreenOrder, to which I was an adviser at the time. The firm — whose clients included several blue-chip Fortune 500 companies — devised the acronym, and the framework behind it, in advising C-suite executives on sustainability strategies that were thoughtful, effective and believable. CRED was one small but important part of that.

The framework (see graphic below) is represented by a virtuous circle and essentially asked four questions:

  • Credibility: Why should anyone believe us?
  • Relevance: How can we leverage sustainability to create value?
  • Effective messaging: How do we translate complex data into compelling messages?
  • Differentiation: Do we have unique goals and achievements?
CRED framework for sustainability communications

The devil, of course, is in the details. Each question requires no small amount of thoughtful consideration. And simply following this framework ensures absolutely nothing. But it’s a starting place for internal conversations that could help a company stay out of trouble, regulatory or otherwise, and maybe even advance the cause of being seen as a sustainability leader.

In the end, the same old questions remain: Is being humble a virtue or a failing? How much communicating is too little, too much or just right? Is it better for a company to amplify its commitments and performance or to keep them quiet?

Companies will find that walking this communications tightrope will become increasingly challenging and perilous as society’s ever-brighter klieg lights illuminate whether and how companies are walking their talk. Finding the balance between being proudly boastful and humbly quiet will be up to each company and, in many cases, will change from moment to moment.

And, sometimes, let the critics be damned.

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here . Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn , subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz , from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350 , my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.