Greenwashing, Greenwishing and Greenhushing – The three deceptions undermining corporate sustainability

This week, Denmark witnessed its first ever greenwashing litigation taken against a pork producer for allegedly making false claims and misleading consumers through its marketing practices. This also happens to be the first ever lawsuit taken against an EU food producer. Of course, there are many other examples of EU household brands across sectors such as aviation, fashion & retail and the motor industry where legal action has been taken to protect the public from false environmental claims. And rightly so.

As the fight to curb global warming slowly and frustratingly trundles along it does beg the question though, why is it that businesses continue to not be honest in their sustainability efforts?

With a wave of new EU legislation soon making it mandatory for many large companies to report across a range of non-financial ESG related performance metrics, we are set to see a huge uplift in the number of businesses adopting the ESG model of business governance. This will result in many more organisations investigating their ambitions and setting targets to reduce their environmental footprint, to be purposeful organisations that stand against negative social impacts and to demonstrate the expected ethical business practices they have in place to manage their operations. Again, rightly so.

In light of the risk of Greenwashing, is it acceptable for businesses to remain tight lipped about their achievements so as to avoid scrutiny? Furthermore, is it acceptable for businesses to set commitments based on an ambition of what they hope to achieve? Particularly when perhaps the pathway isn’t 100 percent clear due to so many interdependencies required for businesses to meet targets.

With pressure from stakeholders mounting, there is a danger that businesses will be walking a tightrope when it comes to communicating about their ESG ambitions and achievements. And they will not just be in the firing line for Greenwashing but also for the more nuanced but equally damaging behaviours; Greenhushing and Greenwishing.

And they will not just be in the firing line for Greenwashing but also for the more nuanced but equally damaging behaviours; Greenhushing and Greenwishing.

Greenwishing is a subtler form of deception. It's when a company expresses a desire or intention to be more sustainable without taking concrete actions to achieve that goal. The emphasis here is on wishful thinking rather than genuine commitment. Businesses might state they 'hope' to reduce emissions by 2050 or 'aim' to become carbon-neutral without a clear plan in place. This tactic relies heavily on future promises, which can be indefinitely postponed. The risk that many companies will ultimately be accused of Greenwishing will undoubtedly rise as legislation places demands on businesses to report their environmental and social goals. The clue is in the word: they are goals.

Paradoxically, Greenhushing is the opposite of Greenwashing. It entails reducing external communication about climate commitments to avoid critique for failing short on them and extends to those doing legitimate sustainability performance improvements. There are a myriad of reasons why businesses might hush their green credentials; a fear of criticism by certain stakeholders on progress, a lack of confidence in their ability to deliver against targets or it could also simply be a strategy to avoid being labelled as “woke” or a “Greenwasher” and to appear humble, to be just getting on with the job at hand. Being silent about achievements and intentions reduces positivity and opportunities for collaboration while ultimately damaging your brand reputation with employees, customers and other stakeholders should they not be aware of your investment and commitment to ESG.

So how can businesses avoid the “Three Greens” and manage their impact and reputation?

Be transparent: Even if there are no big wins or large investment pots - little steps are appreciated, if stakeholders can see that actions within a company are genuine and not contradicting.

Consider a certification process: While this might be an investment of additional time and resource, following neutral external processes with genuine verification can help businesses to ensure they are taking the right steps and be confident in the approach and changes they are making. Remember though that is only one part of an effective sustainability strategy.

Communication is key: Your ESG communications strategy should not be a substitute for product marketing but rather a tool up engage stakeholders to create buy-in to your approach and commitments. Little and often is a good, and a more targeted communications plan instead of mass broadcasting can be the right approach.

Admit imperfection: Nobody has all the answers, and this is a journey. Be confident in your success if there aren’t any fair reasons for criticism, while also admitting imperfection. Yearly sustainability reports that admit faults and describe meaningful improvements can help. · Let the laws do the talking. Stricter laws against greenwashing are coming but they should only punish those who are actually greenwashing. Don’t shrink away from talking about achievements and fall into the Greenwashing trap.

Choose your partners carefully: A good agency, for example, should know how to communicate sustainability and avoid the pitfalls. Quite a few of the most egregious greenwashing cases have been committed by clumsy marketing teams that don’t know the area.

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