Greenwashing vs greenhushing: let’s close the gap

Businesses must be honest about sustainable efforts and be held to account

Toby Strangewood

Co-Founder Wake the Bear


The term greenhushing has hit the headlines lately, as it is becoming more apparent that companies are staying quiet about their net zero emissions targets to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing. But this is not a 2023 phenomenon: last year a survey by the Financial Times reported that a quarter of 1,200 companies reported doing this. 

So, as the pressure needs to remain firmly on all of us - big corporations, start ups and individuals - to commit to a more environmentally friendly agenda, are these businesses over cautious, or running scared because a mirror has been held up to their claims?

Last year nearly 60% of green claims made by 12 major brands in the UK and Europe were found to be unsubstantiated or misleading. No wonder consumers are questioning, or indeed becoming cynical of, the green messaging being presented to them. 

Consumers are now questioning whether claims around recycled packaging or C02 emissions are correct. In the past, we may have blindly believed, or indeed not really cared, that nine out of 10 dentists recommended our toothpaste, but the stakes are much higher within the current and worsening environmental crisis. If brands are seen to be unfairly benefiting from the climate crisis in a misleading (or damn right dishonest) way then those who aren’t doing what they say should be on high alert. 

However, what if a brand isn’t perfect, but doesn’t claim to be?

If brands are honest that they’re on a journey to their green goals, should they not celebrate the wins they have made while also being honest about the improvements yet to be made? 

While consumers should be protected from ever seeing false or exaggerated brand messages, they should also have the means and mechanisms to hold brands accountable if they do slip through the net. 

The EU’s proposed Green Claims Directive is one such mechanism that could provide safeguards, suggesting ‘clear criteria on how companies should prove their environmental claims’ as well as labeling requirements for these claims ‘to ensure they are solid, transparent and reliable’, as well as checked by an independent and accredited verifier. 

But what does that mean for marketers right now?

A recent study by McKinsey concluded that products making ESG-related claims averaged 28% cumulative growth over the past five-year period, versus 20% for products that made no such claims.

For a marketer fearful of accusations of greenwashing, with the ability to prove those ESG-related claims to be robust, true and measurable, it makes total sense for messaging and content around this to be within their marketing toolbox. If we accept consumers are starting from a point of distrust to these messages, then it’s important the brand’s communications framework identifies when and how those messages are crafted and shared based on their particular consumer, product and category. 

What happens if the brand falls short against their competitors or against customer expectations?

Then it’s all about transparency. Even if the good green initiatives exist alongside less ideal ones, acknowledge that rather than be called out; or even better share the roadmap for when and how those improvements will be made. 

Be honest - we need to create a culture where people can talk openly about their efforts. No one is perfect and consumers will appreciate businesses saying they’re not there yet but are working on it. If you want to do better, say it. Shout about your goals and targets - it’s positive to be heading in the right direction.

Understand where sustainability fits within the brand’s overarching business strategy. If it’s only after three or four hours of a workshop to define business and marketing strategy that sustainability gets mentioned and positioned as a key and critical aspiration of the business and brand, it’s probably not that important to the brand. It may be a necessity for doing business and competing with rival brands, but it’s probably not a guiding light for why the business was created.

If marketing and communications attempts to make it something it’s not by elevating it higher than it should be in the brand messaging, it may still seem disingenuous or inauthentic -  even if the company can back up its claims. 

Know your audience and their priorities. A brand must be able to clearly identify how their product and service meets the needs of their customer segment and provides value to them, whether that’s completing a job to be done or alleviating a pain point. 

Understanding where their green credentials fit into that value exchange will enable a brand to understand if, how and when it’s appropriate to publicise and market those initiatives as any decisions will be based on robust insight to what role the brand plays in people's lives. 

By running through this checklist a CMO should land at a sound and realistic decision around the extent to which green credentials feature in their marketing and communications mix. What is key, though, is keeping the issue in the public consciousness, even if it’s still a work in progress. 

Guest Author

Toby Strangewood

Co-Founder Wake the Bear


Toby Strangewood is Co-Founder at Wake the Bear

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