Navigating greenhushing in 2023

Trying to keep a low profile on sustainability? You could be accused of greenhushing. Mauro Cozzi, CEO and co-founder of Emitwise, says open discussion is the best way forward.

The climate emergency has put sustainability firmly on the corporate world’s agenda. While sustainable practice has started to be mandated for businesses through various legislation and frameworks, the unfortunate reality is that some green credentials aren’t what they seem – otherwise known as greenwashing.

Not all greenwashing is intentional, but businesses must be mindful of any claims made – and they need to be proportionately matched with a strategy to achieve targets. In 2020, the European Commission found that green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive in 42 per cent of cases.

And while greenwashing is an issue the industry is grappling with, this has also catalysed the rise of a newer phenomenon: greenhushing. Or in other words, businesses refraining from publicising their climate action due to fear of being criticised.

For some, greenhushing means keeping their lack of progress quiet to avoid drawing attention. But for others who are taking positive steps, this means silencing themselves from talking about their journey towards a better future – despite a recent survey showing that 86 per cent of UK adults want to see more transparency from businesses on their environmental initiatives and targets.

The rise of greenhushing

In what can be considered the ‘cancel culture’ of the corporate world when it comes to sustainable practice, it is understandable why businesses are shying away from talking openly about sustainability. In October 2022, one survey revealed that nearly a quarter of businesses have no plans to publicly disclose their science-based targets (SBTi), despite the majority having set them to help deliver on their climate ambitions.

Now, there are serious reputational risks involved for businesses tripped up on their sustainability credentials. In 2015, it transpired that Volkswagen vehicles sold in the United States featured software that intentionally changed performance to ‘improve’ emissions results – a case now coined ‘dieselgate’. An example of intentional side stepping around taking pro-environmental action, the scandal demonstrated how failing to adhere to guidelines can be detrimental to an organisation’s public image.

It’s important for the industry to strike the right balance: helping facilitate businesses in making the correct changes, whilst also calling out climate laggards who are stalling on progress or even being deceptive in their communication.

So, what approach should businesses take when talking about sustainability?

Understanding the best course of action can sometimes feel like a minefield. However, if corporates follow sustainability guidelines with a genuine motivation to make positive changes, they shouldn’t feel vulnerable to wider industry reception, it is through shared failings and learnings that entire industries can progress.

With many new standards being introduced, it will also become more difficult for corporates to stall on sustainability or keep undisclosed realities hidden from the public domain. For example, the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was mandated for certain large UK businesses in April 2022, who must now include climate risks in their annual reporting. With the guidelines set to apply to all UK businesses by 2025, it is hoped that pathways to climate deception will be more thoroughly closed off as organisations become exposed.

Businesses will feel most confident talking about climate ambitions when statements are supported by data. Not only is data fundamental for understanding how an organisation is performing – especially in relation to carbon emissions and where the biggest outputs lie – but it also provides rigour to target setting, enables accuracy, and gives context when comparing progress with other industry players.

Ultimately, the climate crisis is indiscriminate in its impact, and it is therefore in the collective interest of us all to help mitigate the impacts. We should strive for an environment where corporates can talk more candidly about their sustainability journeys, which in turn will hopefully encourage other businesses to step up their game.

More information on leveraging supply chain data to boost environmental credentials is available at carbon management platform Emitwise.

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