Sick of greenwashing? It’s greenhushing you should be alert to

Make no mistake, greenwashing is bad, but keeping quiet puts us all in danger

Green megaphone on green background to illustrate article about greenhushing

If the very word ‘sustainability’ has you rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. It is hard to overstate the deep cynicism that people feel towards the green claims promised by the companies whose products underpin our lives.

It’s not just that companies are caught up in the slide towards total mistrust that dominates society.  There is also a special place in hell reserved for those businesses that fly an eco-friendly flag in their ads but put profit ahead of people and nature every time. 

We can hold companies and governments to account. We need action, not virtue signalling. Airlines who suggest that flying can be planet-saving, or oil companies shouting about renewables (a tiny percentage of their business) just as they’re increasing oil output, should be fined.

The Competition & Markets Authority, the Advertising Standards Authority and the EU’s Green Claims directive are all designed to protect people from greenwashing and it is working. 

Turning down the volume on sustainability

But as bad as greenwashing is, greenhushing is worse. A veil of silence has descended over the business world as companies are running scared; pulling claims, deleting web copy and battening down the hatches. It is even more pronounced in the States with a potential Trump administration in the wings.

Sure, kill the fake green claims, but don’t say nothing at all. 

People working in sustainability, communications and marketing roles are afraid. Make one mistake and an activist, journalist, LinkedIn warrior or even your boss is going to kick your ass. No wonder people are keeping their heads down.

The problem is that sustainability in business is new and hard and nuanced. It requires trade-offs. It hasn’t been done before so it carries risk. We’re all working it out as we go, except now we’re doing it in the shadows and that’s bad – very bad – for all of us.

By saying nothing, we’re turning down the volume on the ‘sustainability in business’ conversation. Who really benefits from that? 

Even worse, it makes it appear as if change isn’t happening and it gives the ostriches and the deniers licence to slow sustainable initiatives right down.

Perfect has become the enemy of good, stifling potential collaboration and urgent progress.

Failure is research

What would the world be like if no one was ever able to make a mistake? 

Scientific and technological discoveries are built on failed experiments. I’ll admit we don’t want to experience a failure that leads to an oil-spill, but without experimentation we run the risk of not making the breakthroughs we need, not just in science and technology but in social and human innovation too. 

As Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard University says: “In our lives, and in our organisations, most of us would benefit from experiencing more failures, not fewer.” 

Three ways to avoid greenwashing and greenhushing 

Be radically transparent

Why not opt out of the greenwashing and greenhushing problem entirely and start communicating everything you’re doing and finding? Covering limitations, as well as successes, inspires deep trust and invites others to offer you their support. Share the whole journey, warts and all, and no one will ever be able to accuse you of being dishonest.

Run small experiments to build confidence

We know that wholesale transformation is hard for some businesses to stomach. We always encourage the people we work with to try small-scale pilots that generate positive signals and the data needed to build trust. What two or three limited experiments could you run next quarter? What if you shared the results beyond the company walls?

Bring people in

Engaging with people and communities, in the real world and online, allows companies to rebuild a new kind of trust. Bringing outsiders in to see for themselves, to witness and report back in their own words, allows the creation of what Rachel Botsman at the University of Oxford calls ‘distributed trust’, the trust we rely on when we read through Amazon reviews. How might you build it, too?

Leo Rayman is CEO and founder of EdenLab, the green growth and sustainability innovation firm whose mission is to create and enable demand for cleaner, greener, profitable products and services.