Are We Entering a New Era of Greenhushing?

By Ellie Smith

1 year ago

An increasing number of companies are keeping quiet about their eco efforts

Nowadays, we’re much more savvy when it comes to greenwashing. Buzzwords like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ no longer cut it – people want to see real evidence that companies are being honest about their green initiatives. And there’s set to be an even bigger crackdown thanks to a new proposal from the European Union, the Green Claims Collective, which will force brands to back up their claims with science.

That means greenwashing is becoming increasingly difficult – which is certainly a good thing. Yet it’s also giving rise to a new trend in the sustainability sphere: greenhushing. This is essentially the opposite of greenwashing: companies keeping quiet about their environmental efforts for fear of being called out. 

What Is Greenhushing?

The term ‘greenhushing’ was actually coined by consulting firm Treehugger back in 2008, referring to companies choosing not to communicate their sustainability efforts. It resurfaced recently following a 2022 survey from carbon finance consultancy South Pole, which looked into companies’ plans for emissions targets. Although 72 percent of private companies surveyed had set targets in line with global climate goals, almost 25 percent of those refused to reveal their plans.

There are many reasons brands might choose to keep quiet. The most obvious one is fear of being cancelled: announcing sustainability initiatives opens a business up to criticism for getting things wrong – and lawsuits around greenwashing are also becoming increasingly common. Others might be worried they won’t achieve the goals they’ve set out. And often it’s just a case of being unsure: companies don’t know which stage they’re meant to announce efforts. 

Organic aisle in supermarket

Getty Images

Why Is Greenhushing A Problem?

While at a first glance, greenhushing might appear a lot less detrimental than greenwashing, experts have pointed out numerous knock-on effects. Some have warned it could actually make way for even more greenwashing, allowing brands to hide under the guise of ‘quiet conscientiousness’.

Australia’s corporate watchdog Asic commented on this at the recent AFR ESG Summit in Sydney recently. The firm’s chair Joseph Longo said: ‘Domestically, we’ve observed some commentators and firms saying, in effect, “we have such a good ESG policy, but we can’t say anything about it because the regulators won’t let us.”’

He added: ‘The reality is the critics are right: this kind of response is just another form of greenwashing; an attempt to garner a “green halo” effect without having to do the work.’

And, of course, greenhushing affects the people buying the products: we should be able to make informed decisions about where we’re spending our money. 

Ultimately, companies remaining quiet about climate change won’t help incite change. The aforementioned South Pole report called the trend ‘concerning’, citing the fact that companies have the power to inspire others and change mindsets. 

Sustainable lifestyle coach Lucy Johnson highlighted this in a recent column: ‘What we’re seeing around the world is that as more people adopt a more sustainable life, they normalise this way of living for others around them, which increases the rate of adoption in what’s known as the ripple effect. Think of it a bit like behavioural contagion.’ 

As South Pole CEO Renat Heuberger said in a statement: ‘The speed at which we are overshooting our planetary boundaries is mind-blowing. More than ever we need the companies making progress on sustainability to inspire their peers to make a start. This is impossible if progress is happening in silence.’