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The negative commercial sustainability trend ‘green hushing’

Through fear of being plastered with the label ‘greenwasher,’ companies are withholding details of their climate targets, progress, and even sustainable milestones. This burgeoning issue is being called ‘green hushing.’ 

Exposing companies for greenwashing tactics is supposed to bring about increased transparency, but for some, the mere possibility of being tarred with this brush is enough to avoid all communication on anything related to sustainability. 

We’ve seen countless times in recent years how baseless green claims can draw public outrage and scrutiny on social media, not to mention lawsuits – such as those filed against Whole Foods, Tlou Energy, Kroger, and H&M. 

In the age of conscious consumerism, brands need to at least appear socially responsible to garner favour with younger generations as we approach critical climate deadlines. That being said, faux moves which aim to mislead consumers or overinflate a company’s ecological progress are never well received.

The scope of PR fallout is usually attributable to how big an offender the brand is, or its parent industry is, but any case can be costly if environmental groups catch wind. Typical offenders we cover monthly on Thred are usually traced back to energy, fast food, fashion, or cosmetics. 

Faced with the threat of tarnished reputations and legal action, many businesses are opting not to mention sustainability or climate targets at all. Even if intentions are pure and targets are plausible, many believe the potential pitfall of being labelled ‘greenwasher’ significantly outweighs any upside. 

These companies abiding by the mantra ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry,’ are partaking in a newly coined practice known as ‘green hushing.’ 

Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing in the UK, defines green hushing as ‘the deliberate downplaying of your sustainability practices for fear that it will make your company look less competent, or have a negative consequence for you.’ 

First receiving widespread coverage in October 2022, a Swiss carbon finance outfit called South Pole published a comprehensive report involving 1,200 businesses globally.

Of those surveyed, a quarter claimed they would not publicise their science-based net zero targets to avoid allegations of greenwashing. This was despite a 72% uptick in the volume of overall climate targets made since the previous year. 

There appears to be a growing feeling that taking the initiative and announcing eco-plans will appear as an attempt at point scoring, drawing unwanted scrutiny. Climate groups, meanwhile, are calling for stronger disclosure agreements to hold companies accountable and drive competition for green practices. 

While concerns about indiscriminate greenwashing crackdowns are valid, claiming victim to a ‘woke brigade’ is an awfully convenient position for nefarious companies to take. Complete commercial transparency, intangible as that prospect may sound today, is ultimately what’s needed. 

‘If green hushing becomes a trend, it will make inspiring some of the climate laggards even harder,’ says South Pole’s sustainability advisor Bethan Halls. 

‘As long as companies are transparent about their progress, and communicate that in a transparent way, then they can’t go wrong.’