Is greenhushing – or brands intentionally taking steps to stay quiet about their climate strategies, programs and initiatives – gaining traction as business leaders’ concerns about greenwashing heighten?
As people progressively call on the business sector to take greater action on climate change and social issues, brands increasingly are marketing and communicating their sustainability efforts. And as our depth of knowledge and understanding about sustainability enhances our understanding of what is and is not greenwashing, the bar for efficacy rises and escalates scrutiny of claims. And so it’s no surprise greenhushing is becoming a thing.
A challenge to remain relevant
Many brand leaders, entrepreneurs, and marketers I speak with admittedly feel wobbly as they’re finding their pathway and adjusting their orientation to demands for greater action. They’re concerned about how to stay relevant with the rules of the game changing before they can master them. They consider new ways to stay in the vanguard, maintain the loyalty and passion of their current fans, and simultaneously cultivate new ones. Other clients and colleagues I meet opt for a more comfortable route, centering corporate communications on sustainability goals and ambitions (perhaps taking their lead from governments) rather than on committing to tangible plans for the year, outcomes and impact. Alongside this, some brand/product managers continue to mistakenly (and even naively) consider things from vertical perspectives – in isolation – rather than take on a wider systems perspective in their sustainable product development and innovation. (Think recycled plastic and plastic waste, as a ready example.)
And others still are having an ever harder time adapting. Still hoping to return to the former status quo, they feel manic as they react to events in one-offs, rushing around chasing dozens of initiatives. Using trial and error, rather than taking a moment to pause and step back, they are managing —barely—to stand afloat in our overly turbulent world. They, too, are chasing relevance. They know things have changed, but many of their efforts to adjust to the overlapping environmental, social and political crises are yielding piecemeal results. Among many false starts, they find pockets of great success whether with new products, marketing initiatives, cool apps and videos, and the like. Yet frustratingly the “parts” are not adding up to greater than the whole as they hope.
The only way is forward
While some brand leaders may view silence about sustainability initiatives as the safe bet in terms of reputation management and risk management, it’s not necessarily good governance or even the smartest marketing and communications strategy. Coca Cola, Disney and Delta have all learned this lesson the hard way. People’s expectations of brands – and for the business sector overall – have shifted. And there’s no going back. Only forward.
Transparency cultivates trust
Transparency into how brands are responding to the challenges we face and to how organizational leaders are mitigating existential risks are important for consumers, employees and investors alike…. Whether it’s choosing a product to buy, an employer to work for or a company to invest in, knowing the actions a brand is taking guides everyone to make better decisions and increases demand for brands across sectors to responsibly consider all stakeholders – including the environment and society – on the pathway to living purpose and creating a better future for everyone. Transparency is essential to cultivating trust, and trust is essential for long-term success as traditional models for business are disrupted by necessity.
Brands catalyze attitudinal and behavioral change
As 2023 progresses, the list of environmental and social issues companies will need to address likely will grow longer – more complex and more interconnected. And as brand leaders focus on strengthening resiliency, marketing and communications professionals have an extraordinary opportunity to do good through product innovation, enhancing the customer experience and, yes, communications and campaigns that inform and educate. The possibilities to amplify impact will continue to expand as marcomms broadens its perspective and considers relationships/interdependencies and feedback loops, actors and trends across the wider social and environmental systems in which they interact.
Brands have the opportunity – and responsibility – to catalyze attitudinal and behavior change. After all, brands have the power to transform organizations and social norms. Because they have the influence to change the way we think and act.
By Anne Bahr Thompson
Keywords: Sustainability, Marketing