The increasing pressure on organisations to set ambitious sustainability targets and commitments has led to accusations that organisations’ communications are misleading: glossing over harmful environmental impacts by focussing solely on the targets or the successes.
We recently saw HSBC come under criticism following numerous complaints about the bank’s advertisements ahead of COP26. Posters on high-streets and at bus stops highlighted how the bank had invested a substantial amount of money in climate-friendly initiatives but failed to acknowledge its contribution to emissions. As a result, the ASA banned the adverts as they were deemed to be misleading and stated that future campaigns must also disclose how the bank contributes to the climate crisis.
This ‘distraction technique’ is what we have come to know all too well as greenwashing. Despite good intentions, many businesses find themselves in hot water due to a lack of understanding of what greenwashing is and how to correctly and authentically communicate their ESG strategies.
Unfortunately, this fear of being called out and cancelled has created a new problem, ‘Greenhushing’. Instead of publishing sustainability strategies, many businesses are remaining silent to protect themselves from criticism. This silence – or at worst inertia when the spotlight isn’t on – could be arguably more dangerous.
But what really is Greenhushing and why is it an issue?
The fear of announcing sustainability objectives and opting to remain silent about internal net-zero strategies is starting to become commonplace. While sustainability progress is more than a communications opportunity, fear and silence could stifle progress. The issue with this is that by underreporting sustainability practices, organisations are failing to hold themselves accountable and missing the chance to drive conversation and influence the wider industry to also make change.
A recent study by South Pole found that the number of respondents reporting that their organisation had set science-based targets had more than tripled. Despite this, a quarter of them said they would not publicise these targets or their roadmap to reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals.
When looking into why companies may be Greenhushing, it isn’t just the fear of being criticised and the resulting irreversible damage to their reputation.
It is largely SMEs that fall within the Greenhushing category, partly because larger corporations are committed to mandatory sustainability reporting that SMEs aren’t. However, other factors also play into this – smaller companies are struggling to find the financial backing and time needed to achieve sustainability certification leading to a hesitation to commit to making the changes required in the first place.
Another reason why companies may be Greenhushing is the notion that their clients or customers don’t care or pay much attention to their sustainability strategy. Further to this, they believe that by having ambitious targets they will alienate their customers by making them feel guilty for their own behaviour. This is a fundamental reason why Greenhushing is such a big issue. If an organisation has recognised that its customers or clients aren’t engaged in sustainability, they have a responsibility to overcome this and help educate them.
Mitigating reputational risk
But how can we expect organisations to lead by example and confidently communicate targets with the public if they are criticised when they do as well as when they don’t?
By opting to remain silent, organisations are missing an opportunity to not only show the public that they have committed to improving their own sustainability objectives but to also drive the wider conversation. Being transparent about net-zero targets and the challenges in reaching them will enable an organisation to build a deeper level of trust with the public and develop a reputation of an organisation that is driven by purpose.
Ultimately, if an organisation is credible with its objectives and has a considered and reflective communication strategy in place, they should feel encouraged to be open instead shying away due to fear of being overly criticised.
How can we avoid Greenhushing?
The responsibility doesn’t just sit with the organisations themselves; it is critical that we find a balance between holding organisations accountable for wrongdoing and being overly critical of those that are making the right decisions and progress where it matters most.
Due to the severity of the environmental challenges we face, it is vital that organisations feel inspired and motivated to make commitments instead of taking a wait and see approach. With legislation around the race to net-zero constantly changing, there needs to be a certain degree of understanding that not all companies have the financial backing and capabilities to be as agile as others. These companies should be celebrated for the changes that they can and have made instead being damned for what they haven’t done.
It is integral that we create a way for all organisations to feel safe to disclose their sustainability strategy in order to help influence their market and further educate the general public.
If you’d like to discuss how to communicate your organisation’s sustainability targets get in touch with our team of specialists today.