Avoid Greenwashing and Green Hushing: Unlock the Real Value of PR to Drive and Practice Sustainability Communication
November 27, 2023
The concepts of green initiatives and sustainable development have become deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness, widely acknowledged, and adopted as fundamental pillars of modern business operations. They are likely to ring a bell for anyone with even a modest grasp of social and economic fundamentals. In today’s corporate communication landscape, it’s rare to find a company that hasn’t incorporated sustainable development into its core values or hasn’t promoted environmental responsibility. However, the depth of understanding and actual dedication to sustainable development varies among businesses. The key question remains: Do companies genuinely comprehend sustainable development, make practical effort toward a greener future, and integrate sustainability goals into their mission and business strategies?
To truly become a company that practices sustainable development, it’s crucial for business leaders to have a clear understanding of this concept. Misinterpretations can lead to practices such as greenwashing and green hushing, two polarized approaches that can hinder genuine progress.
The term “greenwashing,” coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, refers to the deceptive practice of promoting environmental initiatives for profit-driven purposes while not genuinely committing to them. In simpler terms, it involves saying more than doing when it comes to environmental protection. Greenwashing not only reduces consumer trust when exposed but also erodes confidence in sustainability declarations made by all companies, potentially putting genuinely sustainable businesses at risk. As Pascal Canfin, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, rightly points out, consumers aspire to adopt more sustainable lifestyles, but they often have difficulty in discerning what is truly sustainable. Unfortunately, more and more companies and organizations are misusing terms like sustainability and social responsibility, thereby eroding trust in achieving the real Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is the real cost of “greenwashing”: a society that lacks trust can rapidly deplete our natural resources and jeopardize living conditions for future generations.
Interestingly, a study by South Pole, a Swiss carbon consultancy, reveals another aspect of this problem. The study involved 1,220 large companies in 12 developed countries. Surprisingly, 23% of these companies had set science-based emissions reduction targets but were reluctant to publicize their goals and plans. This behavior is the direct opposite of “greenwashing” and is known as “green hushing”.
The term “greenwashing” refers to the misleading promotion of behaviors or products that do not meet the appropriate standards as environmentally friendly. In contrast, “green hushing” refers to companies that set sustainability goals but hide them from the public. Unlike the expression “doing good without asking for it”, in the corporate sphere, concealing sustainability efforts is far from a good deed. Combating climate change requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders. If companies do not disclose their emission reduction targets and achievements, it will not only complicate audits, but also hinder the exchange of emission reduction methods, which may lead to missed opportunities for collaborative emission reduction.
Both “greenwashing” and “green hushing” represent extreme approaches to sustainable development communication. While “greenwashing” was more prevalent in the early days of climate awareness due to lax regulations, it is gradually being replaced by “green hushing” as companies face scrutiny. To address climate change effectively, we need not only clear goals and innovative solutions but also transparency and confidence in our efforts, as progress cannot happen in silence.
Since the path to sustainable development is fraught with challenges, how can companies effectively share their unique strengths with the public in a timely and appropriate manner? I believe the answer lies in returning to the fundamental question of why a company exists and its ultimate purpose—its “Purpose.” In recent years, this concept has gained widespread recognition and popularity in western corporate management. It operates on a level higher than a company’s vision or long-term goals and answers the fundamental questions about a company’s essence.
By standing on this foundational basis, Purpose guides a company in understanding its core principles and values, as well as the dynamic relationships it has with internal and external stakeholders. When we look at the 17 specific SDGs set by the United Nations to address environmental, economic, and social issues, they all revolve around the most crucial aspects: People, Prosperity, Planet, Peace, and Partnership—commonly known as the 5Ps. These five domains are interrelated and form a cycle of cause and effect. They represent the essence of sustainable development, guiding and inspiring every organization to actively participate and contribute from its own perspective.
As a company’s Purpose reflects its reason for existence and serves as the foundation for its actions, it should be at the core of sustainable development communication. “Greenwashing” and “green hushing” are merely tactical approaches, while the key is to deeply integrate a company’s mission, values, and core strategies with its unique business ecosystem at the philosophical and strategic levels. This integration is crucial in finding the most suitable path for a company’s sustainable development journey.
At FINN Partners, where I work, we pride ourselves on being a global leader in strategic corporate communications. We have always led the way in Purpose-driven communications and in developing innovative strategies around our company’s core Purpose. In 2023, we released our E-Purpose Strategy Report, which brings together the insights of senior strategy consultants from around the world. These insights come from consulting on sustainability and social impact communications for a diverse range of clients across a wide range of industries. The report distills cutting-edge insights and best practices to provide inspiration and valuable guidance for organizations embarking on the journey of sustainability communications.
When it comes to Purpose-driven corporate sustainable development, there are three essential elements that should be integrated into the communication strategy, whether on a global scale or focusing specifically on China. First and foremost, it’s crucial to demonstrate the company’s commitment and investment in sustainable development, especially concerning environmental concerns, climate change, and inclusivity issues. This commitment not only reflects the company’s mission and core values but also shapes its brand image as one that cares about the planet and its inhabitants. For instance, many energy companies have made carbon neutrality a strategic goal for external communication, an integral part of shaping their brand identity as stewards of the Earth. Second, it’s essential to strengthen the company’s ability to integrate and implement sustainable development goals. Companies should actively communicate their expertise, innovation, and capacity for change in the realm of sustainable development. This includes incorporating these principles into their business operations and offering solutions to pertinent challenges. Initiatives like conducting industry-specific whitepapers and gaining insights into future industry trends not only serve as industry benchmarks but also showcase a company’s commitment to innovation and its positive contributions to the industry. And third, harness the creative and storytelling power inherent in public relations to infuse innovative execution into the company’s sustainable development projects. This involves cleverly leveraging external resources, collaborating with partners, and narrating the entire journey in a compelling story format – from the initial intent to the actual measures taken and the achieved outcomes. This forms a complete chain for conveying the company’s sustainable brand message.
Guided by the “Purpose Practice” of FINN Partners’ global headquarters, the FINN Partners China team proactively responds to the unique needs of the Chinese market and business environment. Leveraging our deep understanding and core competencies in public relations, we have pioneered a professional services department called Sustainability & Social Impact, or “Double S” for short. The division is dedicated to fully engaging in all aspects of corporate sustainability programs, including research, positioning, implementation, disclosure, and analysis. By leveraging our strengths in market research, policy analysis, partner networks, in-depth media relations and the art of storytelling, we actively participate in and support the entire program lifecycle. This elevated approach transforms public relations from merely contributing to the issuance of sustainability and ESG reports to a strategic force that effectively coordinates resources.
Since the inception of this specialized division, the FINN China team has worked with a wide range of companies on sustainability communications projects, some of which have won prestigious industry awards. For example, we creatively designed the “BioCity” concept for the “Carbon Neutrality White Paper” project of NovoZymes, a leading global biotech company, showcasing the world vision of biotechnology’s contribution to human well-being. We effectively communicated how Novozymes’ enzyme solutions can improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions in a variety of sectors, including energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Utilizing storytelling techniques and multimedia platforms, our team seamlessly blended scientific insights with biotech highlights, bridging the gap between the twin goals of carbon—a hot topic in society and the economy—and the core purpose of the company.
In addition, the FINN China team has been recognized for its creativity and execution of sustainability green communication projects, such as our partnership with the Australian Wool Board. In 2022, we launched the Bird’s Nest Aid Program in Laojun Mountain, Yunnan, which visually demonstrated the natural qualities of wool by building bird’s nests in the wilderness. In 2023, we partnered with avant-garde dance troupe Sleepless Nights in the Chongqing mountains with a sustainability project called “Return” that used contemporary dance to guide audiences through the juxtaposition of environmental destruction and the resilience of nature’s life force. The project told the story of the complete degradation of wool products in their natural environment.
These examples emphasize how the power of public relations and communications can truly contribute value to a company’s sustainability efforts.