Why 'Greenhushing' Restricts Environmental Improvement
Astutis' Technical Director, Brenig Moore, analyses the latest environmental terms and the effects they have on humanity's attempt to curb climate change. Are portions of society becoming environmentally alienated?
2023 is steadily progressing. But as our most recent environmental blogs have concluded, the fight against climate change has now entered the end game. If we don't do enough now, the damage will be too significant to reverse.
What society needs more than ever is consistency. If we all do our little bit, the contribution will be incredible.
For everyone's contribution to bear fruit, we should support and herald the efforts of those proactively enforcing positive change. This should go for organisations and individuals alike.
Yet, as the year marches on, new terms come to my attention. The notable term that engaged me was 'greenhushing'.
If you have never heard of it, you are not alone.
The term "greenhushing" was coined by environmentalist and author Alex Steffen in 2007. It combines the words "greenwashing" and "hush-hush."
Greenhushing describes when companies deliberately underreport their green or environmental initiatives to avoid scrutiny.
The scrutiny could stem from parties who allege greenwashing or suggest an attempt to manipulate the environmental issue for improved public relations.
Reports have been published that indicate greenhushing is holding influence over corporate decision-making.
Ultimately, the notion of greenhushing originates from a place of fear that companies could face widespread backlash for reporting their ESG (environmental, social, governance) strategies.
Could the impact of public scrutiny deter organisations from introducing progressive environmental initiatives in the future? This is the most critical question from green-hushing - Could it delay the vital progress we need society to make to rescue the environment?
To begin, we should isolate the state of play from the environment.
In some of our content, we have highlighted the necessity of keeping the rise of Earth's temperature within 1.5C. If the temperature rise above that, environmentalists and scientists conclude that the damage will be irrecoverable.
The notion of greenhushing is a direct result of the impacts of greenwashing. So let's combat the problem at its source by understanding how to curb greenwashing.
- Transparency: Companies can combat greenhushing by being transparent about their environmental impact and what they are doing to address it. This means providing detailed information about their sustainability efforts, including carbon footprint, energy use, and waste generation data.
- Accountability: Companies can hold themselves accountable by setting measurable goals and regularly reporting progress. This can include publishing sustainability reports, disclosing information on environmental impact, and conducting third-party audits.
- Collaboration: Companies can partner with stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, and advocacy groups, to work collaboratively to address environmental issues. This can build trust and credibility with stakeholders and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability.
- Innovation: Companies can combat greenhushing by developing innovative solutions to environmental problems. This can include investing in renewable energy, adopting new technologies, and using sustainable materials.
- Education: Companies can educate their employees, customers, and suppliers on the importance of sustainability and how they can positively impact it. This can include training on eco-friendly practices, creating educational resources, and promoting sustainability initiatives internally and externally.
Greenhushing can stem from several factors, such as a lack of commitment to sustainability, a reluctance to invest in costly eco-friendly measures, a desire to maintain the status quo, or simply a lack of awareness or knowledge about the environmental impact of their operations.
However, in today's world, where consumers and stakeholders increasingly prioritise sustainability, companies are pressured to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the environment, and greenhushing is becoming less acceptable.
Several companies, including those in the oil and gas and fast fashion industries, have been accused of greenwashing.
One example of a company accused of greenwashing is Volkswagen.
In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to using software to cheat on emissions tests for their diesel cars, leading to significantly higher emissions of harmful pollutants than were reported. The scandal had severe environmental implications and significantly impacted the company's reputation and bottom line.
The scandal prompted accusations that Volkswagen had engaged in greenwashing.
The company had been promoting its diesel vehicles as environmentally friendly while hiding the accurate emissions levels. The scandal ultimately led to significant financial penalties and legal action against the company and a push for greater transparency and accountability in the automotive industry.
Scandals such as these have directly led to organisations considering how they publicise their approach to the environment, even if they are entirely truthful.
But, to play devil's advocate and for broader context, let's take a look at why companies might engage in greenwashing:
- Cost: Many eco-friendly measures, such as installing renewable energy systems or switching to more sustainable materials, can be costly. Companies may prioritise short-term profits over long-term sustainability goals, preventing them from taking meaningful action to reduce their environmental impact.
- Reputation: Companies may fear negative publicity or a loss of consumer trust if their environmental impact is revealed. Companies may try to give the impression that they are taking action on sustainability while doing little or nothing to address environmental issues.
- Lack of awareness: Some companies may not fully understand the environmental impact of their operations or may not be aware of the most effective ways to reduce their impact. This can lead to a lack of action on sustainability.
- Regulatory pressure: In some cases, companies may only take action on sustainability when they are forced to do so by regulations or laws. This can lead to a focus on compliance rather than a genuine commitment to sustainability.
It's important to note that greenhushing is generally not a sustainable strategy in the long run, as consumers and stakeholders are increasingly prioritising sustainability and demanding transparency from companies. Companies choosing to greenhush risk damaging their reputation and losing the trust of consumers and other stakeholders.
If an organisation decides to greenhush, its workforce could begin to feel undermined, especially those directly attributing to the positive environmental strides.
Consumers are also left out in the cold.
Several reports indicate the weight of the environmental agenda on consumer decisions. If a company is more environmentally progressive, most consumers will tend to pick that company over an alternative.
Various factors influence the phenomenon of greenhushing, including market forces, government regulations, and consumer behaviour. However, companies have a significant role in promoting transparency and accountability around their environmental impact and taking meaningful action to reduce their ecological footprint.
While it is true that some eco-friendly measures can be costly to implement, such as switching to renewable energy or investing in sustainable materials, there are many examples of companies that have successfully incorporated sustainability into their business models and have even seen financial benefits as a result. By investing in sustainability, companies can improve their reputation, attract environmentally conscious consumers and investors, and create long-term value for their stakeholders.
Moreover, businesses are responsible for being transparent about their environmental impact and avoiding greenhushing. Providing accurate and reliable information about their sustainability practices and performance can help build trust with consumers and other stakeholders and encourage other businesses to follow suit.
As the notion of greenhushing grows, worries will question how inaccurate our general Net Zero data could be. Let's say, purely hypothetically, that 10% of all UK businesses currently greenhush; how would that skew data that spearheads the effort to reach Net Zero?
Consumers and the government also play a critical role in addressing greenhushing. Consumers can support eco-friendly businesses and demand greater transparency and accountability around environmental impact. At the same time, the government can establish regulations and incentives to encourage sustainable practices and discourage greenhushing.
However, I suggest that consumers hold the most weight in this debate.
Society as a whole is more environmentally aware than ever before. In the UK, climate activists and environmental protestors force action by disrupting day-to-day activities.
There is a general notion that these protestors might be younger, slightly idealistic in nature, trying to enforce change. However, that is no longer the case. All age groups are arranging protests, which are becoming more frequent and impactful.
Groups are beginning to protest against particular organisations and industries, boycotting operations whilst surrounding brands with negative publicity making it highly damaging for their targets.
Undoubtedly, the theatrical nature of these protests has been questioned, especially those conducted by the group Extinction Rebellion. They argue that you need to grab society's attention to change it. Public opinion of their methodology can be hard to read, but the message behind it is undeniable.
The question is, are these attempts to enforce change working?
In conclusion, greenhushing is a sad reflection of how market and consumer pressures can intimidate environmental reporting. To make things worse, this is happening at the worst possible time - when businesses need to be (and feel that they can be) transparent about how they approach the environment.
It could be argued that greenhushing is a direct result of the impacts of greenwashing. There is also a seemingly natural scepticism surrounding corporate pledges, now taken with a large pinch of salt. Even if these pledges are accurate, the corporate motivation is scrutinised, questioning if they are for Earth's benefit or their own.
But what if it is for both? For Earth's benefit and their corporate reputation?
Progressive strides to minimise organisational impact on the environment should be praised and highlighted. It just so happens that it comes at a time when these strides are essential, and boosting the reputation of these organisations is a secondary benefit.
Organisations must be open and honest about their environmental endeavours as society attempts to curb climate change before it is too late.
At a time when where the need is so great, we should, instead of demonising progressive organisations, let's harmonise that energy to be unified and vigilant as humanity fights for its survival.
Brenig Moore, Technical Director, Astutis
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