Not long ago, the world’s biggest companies were making splashy promises to tackle climate change. Even those in the business of selling fossil fuels — like BP and Shell — were vowing to slash their emissions. Amazon named an iconic Seattle sports center “Climate Pledge Arena” so neither hockey nor basketball fans could ignore the company’s promise to zero out its emissions by 2040.
But the past year has brought a change of pace, with BP, Amazon, and other companies scaling back some of their targets. Amid this shift, another trend has emerged: Some companies are choosing not to publicize their climate goals, a strategy that’s being called “greenhushing.”
“It is really, for us, highly concerning,” said Nadia Kähkönen, global director of communications at South Pole, a Switzerland-based climate consultancy and carbon offset developer. “Now is not the time to stay tight-lipped on how we’re progressing.”
The word is a play on “greenwashing,” a well-established marketing tactic in which companies overstate their environmental credentials. In a way, one has led to the other. Governments are cracking down on greenwashing, and the list of lawsuits over deceptive environmental marketing is growing. It’s not surprising that some companies are reacting to this new landscape with silence, rather than risking a costly court case. But keeping quiet makes it hard to scrutinize what companies are doing, and also makes it more difficult for them to learn from one another’s mistakes.
Some people anticipated that pouncing on greenwashing would result in companies hiding their good environmental practices. Before “greenhushing,” there was “greenmuting,” coined by a former McDonald’s executive in 2007. “I agree there are dangers associated with environmental marketing, but I actually think many companies are reluctant to talk about their environmental efforts because they are concerned they will only be met with criticism,” wrote Bob Langert, then the vice president of sustainability at McDonald’s, in a blog post in response to a report critiquing the “sins” of greenwashing. Langert argued that this “greenmuting” could impede environmental progress by stifling public discourse.
Fifteen years later, Langert’s concern appears justified. Nearly a quarter of large companies from around the globe have decided not to publicize their milestones on climate action, according to a report from South Pole last fall. Of course, as the subject was “greenhushing,” the data was collected anonymously — South Pole conducted interviews with sustainability experts at companies in 15 different sectors, including information technology, finance, and health care. That report popularized the term “greenhushing,” which has recently made the rounds at prominent news outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post. “We definitely brought it into the mainstream,” Kähkönen said.
The silence isn’t the result of fewer companies making climate goals. In fact, according to Kähkönen, there was an “avalanche” of corporate commitments last year, along with budget increases for sustainability initiatives as companies realized that reaching net-zero emissions was going to be harder than they thought.
More and more countries are crafting regulations aimed at countering greenwashing. Companies based in France, one of the few countries that already has an explicit regulation that limits greenwashing, were among the least likely to publicize their climate goals, South Pole found. “Companies may be unsure about how to comply with this legislation and are afraid of being sued: they therefore give up talking about their targets altogether,” the report says.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has begun the process of updating the “Green Guides,” the rules that govern environmental marketing. Clarifying those guidelines could make for stronger legal cases against companies that violate them, but lawyers aren’t waiting around for the FTC. In March, a class-action lawsuit in California alleged that Delta Air Lines had misrepresented itself to customers by claiming to be carbon-neutral in advertisements, when in reality it relied on imperfect carbon offsets.
That same month, the European Union released a detailed set of rules, called the Green Claims Directive, aimed at reining in false advertising around sustainability. Since each E.U. member state can meet those requirements in their own way, it’s creating an atmosphere of uncertainty for companies, said Austin Whitman, the CEO of Climate Neutral, a nonprofit that evaluates and certifies climate pledges.
“We really, really, really need a lot more disclosure of all the environmental actions that companies are taking, and we need it to be disclosed regularly and transparently, and we need it to be disclosed quantitatively,” Whitman said. “And companies need to feel like they’re able to disclose in a way that is not going to backfire.” He called for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to speed up the development of a framework that would force companies to disclose emissions data in a standardized way.
Yet another factor at play could be the result of Republican backlash against “woke investing.” Investment giants like BlackRock and Vanguard have scrubbed references to their climate goals on their websites over the last year, according to a recent report from the Washington Post. But Whitman sees the drama over environmentally-friendly investing as mostly separate from corporate sustainability. “I don’t see it as affecting consumer brands as directly as it does asset managers,” he said.
Whatever the reasons for greenhushing, it’s not all bad news. The companies that were blasting everyone with misleading information about their climate progress finally have a reason to stop, Whitman said. “They should be worried about litigation, regulation, and consumer pressure, and they should shut up about it.”