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January 7, 2024

Successes and Failures of Cracking Down on Greenwashing

Greenwashing and greenhushing are becoming increasingly popular business practices that are slowly being addressed by policy regulations and public reporting

Successes and Failures of Cracking Down on gGreenwashing

In 2019, McDonald’s launched paper straws across the US---it turns out they were unrecyclable. It would appear that businesses, even large corporations, are becoming more “eco-friendly” in recent years but the truth is more cynical than the disguise.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing identifies the practice of fabricating claims toward sustainability. Such claims are marketed heavily in a business’ advertising as a strategy to reach an eco-conscious consumership while continuing to exercise operations that harm the planet. Greenwashing deceives the public and businesses acquire more money and power for their own interests. It is entirely a misdirection.

Common signals of greenwashing include outrageous numbers and percentages, word choices like ‘100% natural,’ ‘net zero’, or ‘eco-friendly’, adding photos of the earth or nature, and green text or packaging. These plots are made to communicate and represent an otherwise anti-green product or business.

Some favorites like Burt’s Bees Cosmetics and Whole Foods, both of which are recognized as ‘eco-brands’ who allegedly source from nature, ironically face major lawsuits for false advertisement of their products.

Greenuhusing

Isabel Hagbrink at South Pole, a climate strategy and solutions organization, proposes potential measures to harmonize a global effort that helps to offer more credible and “clear language, shared governance and minimum requirements” to generate an all-hands-in corporate climate ambition”. [1] To undertake greenwashing by ensuring business--however large or small--uphold climate responsibility, in turn, empowers the public to make sustainable decisions in their everyday life. But there’s a second effect: greenhushing.

This refers to businesses who are discreet when speaking on their green initiatives due to fear of being labeled ‘greenwashers’. Greenhushing, unlike the hypervisibility of greenwashing, can be defined as the “deliberate downplaying of your sustainability practices for fear that it will make your company look less competent”.

In October 2022, a report highlighting the trend of greenhushing noted nearly 300 companies did not broadcast their sustainability outcomes and efforts “beyond the bare minimum”. In fact, so few companies and even fewer small businesses disclose information in regards to their climate data, including but not limited to their impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water, biodiversity and deforestation.

Solutions

Public reporting that allows for open access to imperative data has the potential to resolve both greenwashing and greenhushing. In the European Union, starting 2025, climate disclosures will not be optional but a must, legally. Meanwhile, the US aims to implement stricter bylaws, first with large franchises, beginning 2024. With more truths, ultimately, clearer and more deliberate groundwork can help us draft greener tomorrows.

Beyond policy regulations, the shift towards open-access data isn't just about compliance; it's about empowering the public, expanding transparency and fueling informed decision-making. Consumers should be able to compare companies’ environmental footprints in an easy and accessible manner and hold them accountable to their sustainability claims. This can also help investors have more accuracy in assessing risk and guide capital towards truly impactful initiatives.

Conclusion

These developments mark a paradigm shift, transforming environmental responsibility from a marketing buzzword to a measurable metric. With informed action replacing greenwashing and greenhushing, we can collectively pave the way for a sustainable future based on objective data.

References

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/24/climate-a-greenwashing-crackdown-in-europe-hasnt-gone-down-well.html

[2] https://www.fastcompany.com/90858144/what-is-green-hushing-the-new-negative-sustainability-trend-explained