What is greenhushing?
Greenhushing is when businesses underreport their sustainability practices to their customers and stakeholders. The term was first coined by the consulting firm Treehugger, who claimed that they met with many businesses who felt hesitant to celebrate their sustainable initiatives. In effect, it’s the opposite of greenwashing, which is when businesses attempt to falsely appear as more environmentally conscious and progressive than they really are in order to win customers and gain profit.
Greenhushing is more common than you might think, especially in the tourism industry. A 2014 study of 31 tourism businesses in the Peak District, all of which had been awarded the Environmental Quality Mark, showed that just 30% of their sustainability actions were communicated to their customers. Similarly, in a 2016 survey of over 2,000 hotels across 44 countries, only 48% of respondents stated that they had a page on their website dedicated to their sustainability practices.
Generally, small businesses are the main culprits of greenhushing. This is because they are often left out of sustainability reporting legislation, which is usually only applied to large corporations and public sector organisations.
Why do companies greenhush?
The choice to keep quiet about great environmental work might seem strange, but there are many reasons why companies greenhush. Primarily, it’s because of a fear of being criticised for not doing enough in terms of sustainability. Companies also worry about being accused of greenwashing, which can irreversibly damage a company’s reputation.
This is made worse by the unattainability of sustainability certifications to many small businesses. As customers have become more environmentally conscious and warier of greenwashing, the demand for certifications to confirm the legitimacy of companies’ sustainability practices has grown. However, the certification process can be expensive and time-consuming for small businesses as it involves a thorough research and data collecting. Lack of certification can undermine the confidence of small businesses in their sustainability initiatives and can lead to their reluctance to report them.
Another reason why some companies greenhush is because they feel that only a minority of customers who have particularly strong convictions about the environment are attracted to businesses because of their sustainability practices. Most customers care more about the personal benefits and experiences they can gain from choosing a particular business over another. Some businesses even feel that customers will judge them to be of lower quality if they place an emphasis on their environmental efforts.
Many companies are also wary of making their customers feel guilty by focussing too much on sustainability. This might alienate the customer by forcing them into an unpleasant moral dilemma and leading them to reflect on the potentially negative impacts of their actions on the environment. For this reason, some companies avoid communicating their sustainability practices to their customers altogether.
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What’s wrong with greenhushing?
Companies that greenhush miss out on the opportunity to inspire positive change and move their wider industry in a more sustainable direction. If they were more transparent about their work for the environment, they could act as a role model to other organisations, who may borrow ideas from their sustainability initiatives. They might also attract investment from stakeholders who want to invest in sustainable businesses. This investment could speed up the development of new sustainable technology and the overall movement towards a more sustainable economy and help them achieve net zero quicker.
Greenhushing also prevents customers who are looking to support sustainable businesses from making informed decisions. Being more open can inform the customer of what to look out for and what to expect in the future from businesses in terms of sustainability.
How can you avoid greenhushing?
Here are some tips for making sure that you don’t underreport your sustainability practices:
- Be honest. Saying nothing is always the worst option as your customers will assume you aren’t doing anything. Outlining not only what you’ve achieved but also where you’ve struggled in terms of sustainability will build valuable trust with your customers.
- Be Transparent Provide as much information about your business’ sustainability policies as you can on your website. If possible, it’s a good idea to publish an annual sustainability report to keep your customers and stakeholders up to date on your progress.
- Communicate – Don’t let a lack of hard evidence or data put you off communicating your sustainability practices to your customers. Many customers won’t expect tons of evidence to back up your environmental claims, as they will understand that this is out of reach for many small businesses. Even if it’s something as simple as encouraging your employees to take public transport to work or buying your food locally, it’s better than nothing and your customers should hear about it.
- Be Clear – Avoid using vague language and overusing buzzwords. A common pitfall is to say something like “we practice sustainable habits” and leave it at that. Aim to keep things clear and accessible so that your customers can understand exactly what you’re doing to make your business more sustainable.
- Be Better than Yesterday! Remember that sustainability is an ongoing process and nobody expects you to be perfect. Celebrate your successes but don’t avoid talking about the areas where you could do better. You can frame this positively by setting out your short, medium, and long-term sustainability goals on your website.
Ultimately, there’s no real mystery when it comes to avoiding greenhushing — it’s all about being transparent. For more advice on sustainability reporting, click here.