Green-hushing is when a company adopts a ‘radio-silence’ approach to environmental goals.
Many companies do it. Some don’t realise they’re doing it. Others do realise but will not openly acknowledge it.
Nevertheless, ahead of COP27 in Cairo, the topic has returned to the fore again. Climate scientists are piling criticism on entities they feel are ‘green-hushing’ their way through environmental responsibility.
It follows the release of a report this week from Swiss carbon finance consultancy South Pole. From a survey of over 1,200 self-professed “heavy-emitting” companies across 12 countries, 25% of respondents were “keeping quiet” about their science-based climate goals.
These companies have, by and large, set themselves net-zero targets; they just aren’t publicising them, nor have they any plans to.
What is green-hushing?
Green-hushing is when companies take steps to stay quiet about their climate strategies. They do this through avoidance or refusal. If somebody asks about their climate goals, they decline to answer. If nobody asks, they don’t do anything.
There are two main reasons for ‘green-hushing’:
- Companies don’t want to be called out if they fall short of their stated targets.
- Companies don’t want to be called out for ‘greenwashing’ (persuading stakeholders that they are more environmentally friendly than reality).
‘Green hushing’ was first coined in the late-2000s but has hovered chiefly under the radar when compared to ‘greenwashing’, which enjoys widespread familiarity.
How are green-hushing and greenwashing related?
Green-hushing is often used to avoid being called out for greenwashing, and yet at the same time; some critics say green-hushing is an example of greenwashing since companies have no public benchmark despite claiming to be acting in the interests of the environment.
The cycle is primarily one based on fear. Companies that green-hush believe there is little value and many risks in being truly open about their climate goals. Even if they have confidence in those goals, they don’t want to brag about them for fear that there is something they may be unknowingly omitting or exaggerating.
So, for the time being, their best solution is to avoid the topic entirely, giving them the appearance of trying to hide their climate impacts.
Does green-hushing matter now?
Yes. It is hitting the news again, and South Pole’s report has suggested that it’s far more common than the corporate world thinks.
One in four companies withholding climate strategies is enough for South Pole’s CEO Renat Heuberger to warn that the trend may be catching on.
“We see that sustainability-minded businesses are increasingly backing up their targets with science-based emissions reductions milestones, which is absolutely the right approach,” he said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.
“But if a quarter today aren’t coming forward with details on what makes their target credible, could corporate green-hushing be spreading?”
What’s the risk of green-hushing for boards, and what can they do about it?
It’s a simple chain: green-hushing can put companies at odds with their ESG goals; ESG goals are part-motivated by investors and other stakeholders; therefore, green-hushing risks putting companies at odds with their stakeholders.
With suggestions that the concept is now more popular, boards should embrace it as a wake-up call.
They should know what the concept means and be crystal clear whether their organisation is using the strategy in its reporting.
Green-hushing is withholding information on climate strategy for fear that releasing it will bring some form of reputational risk.
For some, it’s a way to avoid accusations of green-washing. For others, it’s a sign that an organisation is already greenwashing.
Boards should be conscious of the longer-term consequences of such an action, particularly in a corporate world more concerned by climate change than ever.