Ssshh, we’re doing a great job… but don’t tell anyone!


Date: 29/06/23

Many businesses have had their fingers publicly burned in recent years by accusations of greenwashing and, in reaction, market regulators across the UK, EU and individual member states have sharpened their teeth and are taking on businesses that have been misleading customers through their environmental claims.

High profile companies to fall foul of new consumer protection laws on environmental claims have included KLM, found by the Dutch Advertising Standards watchdog to have mislead customers about net-zero claims; ASOS, Asda and Boohoo are currently under investigation for a variety of sustainability claims; and the fast-moving consumer goods sector in the UK, worth over £130 billion in 2022, is now under the scrutiny of the UK’s regulator.

Regulators now have more stringent codes for voluntary green disclosure, with the EU requiring green claims to be independently verified, so is it really any wonder businesses are shrinking from the limelight, choosing instead to underplay their green credentials? The phenomenon of greenhushing, as discussed in our recent white paper, is now upon us, whereupon those making genuine efforts are choosing not to share their environmental claims for a variety of reasons, many based around fear of reputational, commercial and legal consequences if they get it wrong.

In a YouGov/Earthwatch B2B survey in April 2023, 1 in 4 respondents felt that their own business had engaged in greenhushing. If fear of accusations in the press of greenwashing weren’t bad enough for businesses, the arrival of more powerful regulation will surely rein in the ambitions of the most communicative organisations.

If we assume that voluntary green disclosure just got that bit harder for businesses, will this burden fall equally on the whole of the private sector? Unfortunately, no. Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) already lag behind even having a sustainability strategy, with 42% and 33% of small and medium companies surveyed having no strategy or plan, compared with just under 10% of large companies. Those same enterprises spend less time and effort communicating what actions they do take. Why is this? Reasons are numerous, including the perception that their customers do not value sustainability; that the business itself does not appreciate its importance; and that the business does not feel its sustainability efforts are impressive enough to talk about. In addition, SMEs frequently do not have dedicated sustainability experts, and so lack the internal resources to ensure voluntary green claims are accurate. However, SMEs are often part of the supply chain of larger organisations, so expectations from business customers for accurate claims will only rise. SMEs’ reticence to make environmental claims also could lead to (yet) another win for big business as it gains competitive advantage by attracting customers and employee talent through well-publicised environmental credentials.

More onerous regulations may deter some of the most carbon intensive companies - for example, oil and gas majors, banks and investment firms funding fossil fuels – from talking about their green transitions. These companies should already be hyper-vigilant about public environmental claims due to the nature of their business and past experience of greenwashing accusations, but rather than seeing them retreat further, we need these companies to be transparent about genuine moves to greener operations since their voices are heard so loudly and can produce a ‘ripple effect’ across the spectrum of business and society. What’s more, their business decisions have a significant effect on the speed of our journey to net zero.

But let’s stop for a moment and reflect: are there alternative ways that businesses can talk about sustainability that promote their values and circumvent accusations of greenhushing? Studies on the rural tourism industry show that many businesses engage in audited green practices and talk about them on their websites, but in implicit terms that suggest no need for customers to change their behaviour to conform; for example, rather than suggesting customers not use cars due to carbon emissions, websites recommend local walks from the accommodation, or a small percentage discount on the holiday cost if the customer arrives without a car. Tourism businesses therefore try to normalise sustainability practices and behaviour rather than explicitly draw attention to them, by adjusting messages to what they feel customers want to see and experience.

The normalisation of sustainability is a destination we would like all businesses to reach, but it is imperative that customers and the general public can ride with them on their journey, through honest and open disclosure of environmental credentials. In that way, customers are well-informed, employees are well-motivated and companies can benchmark themselves against other - equally honest – companies, pushing each other harder to arrive sooner at a world in balance with nature. Let’s leave the last word to Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever: “Anytime you're in a position to speak up about things that you know are right make you actually part of the solution.”

Author: Lene Bryant, Learning Manager Lene designs and delivers online and in-person experiential learning programmes for our corporate partners. She has a background in learning and development management and delivery, teaching, and organisational culture and change, and has just completed a Masters in Climate Change & Development. She enjoys taking a systems perspective in her learning work on the climate and biodiversity crisis, and believes in the power of experiences in nature for everybody on Earthwatch programmes.

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