Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Circumspect firms may fall victim to ‘greenhush’

October 2009

Some companies are now so afraid of being accused of greenwash that they are avoiding all communication on sustainability matters, it has been claimed.

The new phenomenon – coined ‘greenhush’ – has been identified in a guide to ‘understanding and preventing greenwash’, which argues that an increasingly common reaction to the growing level of public complaints about unsubstantiated or exaggerated sustainability claims is for companies to adopt the attitude that ‘we’re scared of greenwashing, so let’s not say anything’.

US-based Business and Social Responsibility (BSR), which has produced the guide, says: ‘There are multiple issues with greenhush. [It means] customers aren’t aware of their choices and their sustainability impacts, industry leaders don’t challenge their peers, and businesses aren’t getting due credit.’

The guide suggests companies can reduce the temptation to clam up by first testing potential greenwash on stakeholders who can provide ‘perspective and guidance’. This will improve confidence that certain messages will not be received negatively.

Companies should also start small by trying a lower-profile approach to advertising first, so as to learn from their mistakes. And they should also clarify exactly who their audiences are for different campaigns, so they can pick the most effective way to communicate with them.

The guide, co-produced with the UK-based Futerra consultancy, says companies should additionally consider whether the issues they are communicating are material to their business; whether other of their activities are consistent with a particular green message; whether they have the data to back their claims, and whether they can ensure that the significance of any claims is easy for consumers to understand.

Jerry Stifelman, creative director of The Change, a US-based brand-strategy and design agency, said he has witnessed greenhush at first hand, and claimed that some big corporate names – among them Ikea – have not been as communicative on green issues as they might have been.

‘One of greenwashing’s negative effects is that it dissuades genuinely green companies from promoting their own far more substantial green practices,’ he said. ‘Companies that are authentically doing good stay silent, for fear that they’ll be tarred with the same brush as those who are carrying on with business as usual. Although its intent is admirable, its effect is almost as negative as greenwashing.’

Stifelman said one antidote to greenhushing is for companies to build a degree of humility into their sustainability communications campaigns. ‘Being candid about your shortcomings can make you more credible and more likeable, and it pre-empts [complaints from] activists,’ he said.

Business and Social Responsibility | Global | Communication

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