An increasing number of companies are staying mum about their sustainability progress. The worrying trend could slow climate action.
The Covid-19 pandemic, increasing oil and gas prices due to the war in Ukraine, and a potential impending recession are a unique trifecta of our time — one that made the public acutely aware of the fragility of economies and supply chains. But these stressors have also resulted in an unexpected outcome: more companies investing in sustainability strategies to streamline operations, reduce waste, and strengthen supply chains in an effort to lessen the impact on their bottom lines.
According to a survey by Swiss carbon finance consultancy South Pole — which included sustainability leads at 1,200 large businesses spanning 12 countries and multiple sectors — 87 percent of sustainability-minded organizations have net-zero targets. Additionally, the 40 percent of climate leaders without a net-zero goal plan to implement one by the end of 2023, signaling a genuine attempt to reduce corporate environmental impact. But the most surprising fact? One in four of these businesses isn’t talking about their progress.
The trend is known as green hushing. The term was created in 2008 to refer to a company’s decision not to communicate its sustainability efforts. That’s a big problem for progress on climate change because it stymies collaboration, innovation, and accountability.
“If we avoid taking imperfect steps because we’re afraid of being criticized, there will be no steps at all on global climate action,” says Nadia Kähkönen, who worked on the survey and serves as South Pole’s Global Director of Communications. “Green hushing is a serious concern for the global transition to net-zero emissions — not least because we are so out of time.”
When you peel back the layers, the reasons for green hushing make sense. Companies that are greenwashing — or inflating their sustainability initiatives for the sake of increased profits — worry they’ll get called to account for being deceptive. On the other hand, businesses with legitimate climate strategies fear they’ll be accused of greenwashing if they fall short of their goals or run into hurdles during implementation. Then there’s the recent surge in climate litigation. For example, well-known eco-friendly brands like ECOS, Seventh Generation, and Oatly have all been subject to class action lawsuits related to green claims.
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Due to the lack of distinct environmental, social, and government metrics and requirements, along with increased regulatory scrutiny, corporate in-house counsel only expects class action lawsuits related to greenwashing to rise. In a survey of more than 430 general counsel and in-house litigation leaders, eight percent were involved in ESG-related class actions in 2022, and roughly 37 percent of those who said they are wary of future class actions view ESG as “a major driver.” The fear is warranted. Class action lawsuits are a systemic issue and are often used based on unfounded claims in an effort to tarnish a brand’s reputation.
Whatever the motivation for green hushing, the negative impacts are far-reaching — and put our planet at increased peril.
When companies fail to disclose sustainability initiatives and achievements, it makes it harder for employees and consumers to determine whether their commitments are genuine or simply empty promises. Not only that, green hushing limits knowledge sharing around decarbonization strategies, curtails innovation, and reduces incentives for companies to align their behaviors with those leading the way on climate action.
“Credibly communicating goals and progress can inspire employees, other companies, and communities to take action and can create opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving,” says Chisara Ehiemere, Senior Research Lead, Return on Sustainability Investment at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. “Knowing that you are being held accountable and that others are anticipating progress reports helps to ensure that sustainability is prioritized.”
In order for companies to be more open and transparent about global climate initiatives, they’ll need better data, better planning, internal coordination, and supply chain partners and sustainability interventions that help them meet their targets, says Ehiemere.
The world of green terminology is murky, environmental regulation is ever-evolving, and operating a sustainable business is complex and challenging. But if we’re going to take meaningful action on climate change, we need more companies talking about their sustainability initiatives, even if they are imperfect.
“We need companies making progress on sustainability to inspire their peers to make a start — and that is impossible if progress happens in silence,” says Renat Heuberger, CEO of South Pole.
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