Greenhushing: Why Some Companies Downplay Their Green Success

Why Some Companies Downplay Their Green Success Greenhushing

Nowadays, companies prefer to “hush” about their green movements rather than beating the drums around the city.

In today’s age of hyper-transparency and digital immediacy, it’s commonplace to witness companies screaming at the top of their lungs to advertise their sustainability endeavors. Whether it’s through eco-friendly packaging innovations, contributing to planting more trees or marine conservation endeavors in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) realms, they make sure their effort reaches all consumers. Yet, a contrasting trend is lurking beneath the surface of these vocal campaigns: Greenhushing.

What exactly is greenhushing? 

Unlike its boisterous counterpart, greenwashing—where companies exaggerate or fabricate about their eco-credentials—greenhushing thrives in the shadows. This tactic embodies a tactic where companies deliberately downplay or conceal their environmental, social and governance (ESG) accomplishments. With this low-profile strategy, they can evade criticism or scrutiny related to their sustainability goals and actions. 

Despite its evolving presence, pinning down the origin of the term “greenhushing” can be elusive. Variously attributed yet unverified, it tentatively traces back to dialogues on platforms like treehugger.com and mentions by journalists like Ephrat Livni from The New York Times.

But why would businesses mute their green achievements? Let’s delve deeper into the silent corridors of greenhushing, exploring its motivations and implications amidst the corporate chatter on eco-conscious actions. 

The paradox of environmental silence: Why hush it?

The answer to this question partly lies in the cautionary tales of companies who’ve faced backlash after their proclaimed green endeavors were exposed as less than genuine. Here’s a closer look at the motivations behind greenhushing: 

Fear of skepticism

In today’s digital era, companies are perpetually under the magnifying glass. Announcements of eco-friendly initiatives or sustainability-led actions can invite more attention, both positive and negative. 

Take Nestlé, for instance. Their aspiration for 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025, while commendable, was met with skepticism due to ambiguous benchmarks and unclear execution plans. 

Similarly, IKEA’s 2014 decision to demolish an eco-friendly Sainsbury store to build their “most sustainable store ever” in Greenwich drew unexpected criticism. Despite the new store later earning high sustainability ratings and boasting features like solar power and rainwater harvesting, many questioned the decision to knocking the old structure down rather than remodel it. There were even petitions requesting the furniture giant to halt the plan. 

Such instances highlight the intricate dance companies must navigate in ensuring their green actions don’t invite unintended backlash. Some may decide that a quieter approach, letting results shine over time, might be more effective.

Limiting exposure to comprehensive critiques

Authentic sustainability journeys are complex and multifaceted. Announcing successes might inadvertently highlight areas still in transition. Consider Walmart’s ambition to reduce its carbon footprint by 2040. Although a noble goal, critics were quick to point out the elephant in the room: the exclusion of emissions from the company’s supply chain, a dominant contributor to Walmart’s total climate impact.

Such an example underscores that every corporate sustainability announcement is a potential magnet for critique, leading some companies to prefer silent progress over grand declarations.

Haunted by historical transgressions

Past scandals cast long shadows. Companies previously embroiled in environmental controversies might prefer the quietude, hoping to sidestep reminders of prior missteps. The Volkswagen saga is a stark reminder.

In 2015, Volkswagen faced a major scandal when it admitted to manipulating emissions test results, contrasting their supposed eco-friendly advancements. This wasn’t their first emissions-related controversy either; in 1973, VW was accused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of installing defeat devices on vehicles to bypass pollution controls. 

Such episodes drive home the message that overstating eco-credentials can lead to intense scrutiny and, at times, damaging consequences. Thus, some companies might choose a subdued approach to their green initiatives, sidestepping potential pitfalls.

Ethics of humble environmentalism

Lastly, some corporations might view sustainability as more than a strategy—as an ethical imperative. Companies may believe that actions speak louder than words. By quietly implementing green strategies without much fanfare, they may aim to position themselves as genuine environmental stewards rather than merely seeking limelight. 

The implications of staying quiet 

While there might be understandable reasons behind greenhushing, the practice does come with drawbacks. 

Forfeiting positive PR opportunities

When businesses take genuine, effective steps toward sustainability, they don’t just help the environment; they can also boost their own image and build stronger ties with their customers.

A 2018 Nielsen study affirms this perspective, revealing that a staggering 81% of respondents globally firmly believe businesses should play an active role in environmental improvement. Notably, the millennial demographic, as highlighted by Harvard Business Review, shows a marked preference for supporting companies that advocate sustainability. 

This consumer sentiment implies that by not showcasing genuine green initiatives, companies could be inadvertently distancing themselves from a vast segment of their potential market.

Lack of incentives to do more

Public acknowledgment and applause for sustainable achievements can create an environment of positive reinforcement. When green initiatives are kept under wraps, the company might miss out on public appreciation, which could otherwise motivate them to set even higher sustainability standards.

Lost opportunities for industry-wide growth

When companies share their sustainable practices, it can have a ripple effect, inspiring other organizations to follow suit. But when these practices are hidden, the broader industry loses a chance for collective growth.

Silence could evoke distrust

This is perhaps the most damaging consequence—silence might breed suspicion. In the absence of information, consumers might assume that a company isn’t doing much in terms of environmental responsibility. This vacuum can lead to mistrust or a perception that the company is less eco-committed. As a result, consumers might feel they can’t make informed choices that are aligned with their values, leading to potential missed business opportunities for companies.

Concluding notes: A clear path forward is key

Today, it’s more important than ever for companies to be clear about how they’re helping the environment. By honestly sharing their green efforts, they build trust and show they’re committed to a better future. 

However, this transparency must be genuine, rooted in measurable actions and not just in crafted narratives. Businesses need to be more self-reflective, ensuring that their practices align with their proclamations.

We, as consumers, play a big part too. By demanding clarity and holding companies accountable, we play an essential role in sculpting a transparent and sustainable corporate landscape. Only in this collaborative spirit can we ensure a greener, more transparent tomorrow.

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Header Image Courtesy of Unsplash 

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