Greenwashing vs Green-hushing: Is the pursuit of perfection hindering brand communications?

Greenwashing vs Green-hushing: Is the pursuit of perfection hindering brand communications?

Greenwashing has coloured the headlines of recent months, with brands from airlines to energy companies cast into the spotlight to face accusations of over-exaggerating or misrepresenting their “green” credentials. And as the narrative unfolds and fingers point, the PR professionals that spend their days monitoring the news come face-to-face with stories that highlight the risks of communicating about the environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) credentials of their own business or brands – and the impact that such negative press could have on their reputation.

Is green-hushing as risky as greenwashing?

A pertinent topic, this is something that Alfred London has looked to explore in its latest report, ‘Staying Quiet: are brands slowing progress in pursuit of perfection?’, which features data from our Communications Professionals Greenwash Survey 2023  with Alfred.

To paint the picture, some of our research findings suggested that:

  • Businesses seem to be risk averse; 70% of PR and marketing professionals said that “staying quiet” on (ESG) issues was prevalent among the brands they represent.
  • What’s more, over a quarter of respondents (28%) had been asked to do something they said amounted to green-hushing – pointing to a culture beyond communications that proactively seeks to avoid sharing challenges.
  • And interestingly, almost half (49%) felt they needed additional resources or training to feel confident pushing back on clients or colleagues. It’s clear that the role of the communications professional in this context is significant, but it seems many don’t currently feel supported or empowered to act.

And it’s no wonder that PR pros might feel cautious about communicating; our ’50 Shades of Greenwashing’ report that launched earlier this year demonstrated that accusations of greenwashing, sportswashing and corporate virtue signalling are on the rise. The research highlighted public scepticism, with less than a quarter (23%) of the public taking ESG claims at face value, while 86% of the public said they wanted an increase in the level of transparency on environmental matters from businesses and brands.

Does communicating pose a reputational risk – or potential for reward?

Examining the opportunity, Alfred London’s report champions a mindset of progress over perfection; encouraging brands to step away from the pressure to be perfect, be more honest with stakeholders and engage them with their journey to progress.

It looks at how staying quiet about sustainability can in fact inhibit progress and hinder brands from taking meaningful action. Indeed, businesses face a landscape of increasing scrutiny and tightening regulations from regulators to consumers alike, but with transparency can come trust and a more meaningful relationship with audiences.

Making strategic and educated communications decisions

Something that can support brands to make strategic and informed decisions about ESG communications is understanding how their existing activity and that of competitors in similar spaces are currently being received.

At Sensu Insight, our Brand Measurement, Tracking and Reporting services enable businesses to examine audience conversations and the online footprint of their existing communications. This can support brands to understand stakeholder perceptions and make educated content decisions – which can then be monitored and benchmarked for comparison.

Steve Leigh
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