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Greenhushing: A ‘how to’ for businesses to get their confidence back
Wed, 28th Feb 2024

TLDR: As public concern about 'greenwashing' grows, there is a tendency for businesses to stop communicating their climate initiatives (greenhushing) or even shut them down. Greenhushing is a significant threat to climate progress, and it's time for businesses to proudly communicate their legitimate efforts.

Sustainability claims like 'net-zero carbon' and aspirational targets without follow-through have become a dangerous business for big brands… just ask the long list of high-profile companies caught up in costly lawsuits for violating new consumer protection laws around environmental claims in the UK, Europe, North America and Asia - including Samsung and Volkswagen. Public awareness of greenwashing is growing too,  RepRisk reported a 70% increase in the number of climate-related greenwashing incidents in the last twelve months to October 2023.

What's more, December saw big news emerge from the EU: Product 'carbon neutral' claims relying on offsets will be banned from 2026, as an offset-heavy strategy is now seen as misleading. Increased regulation of sustainability claims is a clear trend worldwide, to help maintain fair and ethical trading communications and business practices. 

The bottom line is that business sustainability claims are getting more attention… but they are also being held to a higher standard. 

From climate clamp down to a 'duck down'
But as Newton said - with any 'action', there's always an equal and opposite 'reaction' and 'greenwashing' now has an equally insidious counterpart. Fearing accusations in the press, many businesses have gone to ground on their climate ambition completely. While 'greenwashing' (rightly and very necessarily) calls out false action and lies around climate impact; greenhushing refuses to talk about any action at all - limiting climate progress. In the worst case this can lead to climate initiatives being halted by businesses, which is bad news for the planet.

The unintended costs of silence 
Earthwatch's B2B survey last year found that 1 in 4 respondents felt their business had engaged in greenhushing. Even more worrying is that this trend has spilled over to affect leaders and influencers, with 84% saying they are reluctant to talk about sustainability in their content for fear of a backlash.

This silence has significant consequences because even if unintended, it reduces transparency, makes it hard to differentiate leaders from laggards, and leads to decreased public trust, with large businesses hesitant to talk about the incredible steps they're taking to help their individual and business customers measure, understand and reduce their carbon footprint. Businesses are worried about making a wrong statement - so worried, in fact, that they end up being reluctant to say anything.

In addition, as much as avoiding talking about action might protect firms - it can also cost them. In the inaugural Sustainability Gap Index published in 2023, Brand Finance quantified the financial value of sustainability perceptions by comparing 4,000 companies' sustainability performance to their consumers' perceptions of sustainability to calculate the potential lost opportunity when sustainability initiatives are not clearly communicated to customers. Unsurprisingly, companies with good sustainability ratings are losing millions, sometimes billions of dollars, in brand value because their customers do not perceive them to be as sustainable as they are. 

How to talk about progress
A mature and measured approach to climate strategy means that your business is clear on its goals and is comfortable communicating its progress - or at least is comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable!

Leadership in sustainability has always come with a risk component - it comes from being at the front, pushing boundaries and helping to forge new and meaningful ways of making progress. Talking about what you are doing is a critical component of building brand value as well as growing the ecosystem of businesses engaging in the space. We celebrate every single business that takes a bold stance on communicating their work to empower customers to reduce their impact on the climate, but if we're collectively going to make even more meaningful progress, we need to grow the ecosystem and the ambition.

So how can corporates encourage progress without fear of greenwash or greenhush? We've reflected on our own journey so far, and want to share some learnings that might help others to stay the course.

When it comes to talking about your sustainability efforts, Cogo advocates for a Triple-A approach*: 

  • Accuracy - The bedrock of progress lies in transparency. Instead of deflecting attention from problematic areas, maintaining an open and honest tone is crucial. Communicating what your business is achieving (and not achieving) on its sustainability and climate initiatives is essential. No business is perfect - and your audience gets that - so make sure that you are acknowledging both the highs and lows in your communications. Avoiding unwarranted hype and transparently conveying ongoing progress builds trust and credibility. And lastly, don't forget that expectations on accuracy don't stand still - you will need to keep on improving. Summary: Stick to the facts, and don't sugarcoat the challenges.
  • Aspiration - Talking about your goals and targets in this space is an important component of demonstrating commitment and leadership. Aspirational goals help to accelerate industry-wide progress by encouraging friendly competition and raising the bar on what is considered to be achievable. An aspirational approach will also encourage your business to step outside a business as usual mindset and to experiment and innovate. It's important to acknowledge that perfection is not the aim. Shift your focus from announcing only 'completed actions' ('we did a thing') to an aspirational mindset that champions continuous improvement and communication ('let's do a thing'). Summary: Be authentic and brave by owning your successes and failures. 
  • Association - We won't win the climate crisis on our own - and neither will you! Change is a collective fight and collaborating with others on moving the needle is a smart way to go further and faster. That is exactly what banks are doing when they partner with credible climate tech companies like Cogo to supercharge their efforts in this space. Collaboration helps your business both tap into additional sustainability expertise and increase your ability to talk about what you're doing in the space. Engaging with your customers is also really important - to build loyalty, to get feedback on your sustainability efforts (which supports the 'Accuracy Triple A') and to refine your approach to drive more impact. In our experience, integrating an innovative product like Cogo's Personal Carbon Manager tool into banking platforms results in increased customer engagement and higher satisfaction, as well as enabling important progress on their climate journey. Summary: Together, we can do so much more!

Integrating innovative solutions like Cogo's carbon management technology doesn't mean a company has 'solved' the climate crisis; but simply that they're willing to use the power of technology and cumulative action to become a part of the solution. 

Now, more than ever is the time for more businesses to offer more climate-sustainable tech initiatives, not just for the benefit of the planet but also to secure a competitive edge. Our global community simply can't afford to get cold feet on climate!