Communicating Sustainability Sustainably

Should a Rising Greenwashing Tide Sink All Sustainable Boats?

Part I of a series of blog posts on communicating sustainability.

Big consumer companies—whether as heroes or villains—tend to occupy the sustainability spotlight. Yet, organizations of all sizes and stripes are or will be affected by the many issues, challenges and perspectives regarding sustainability. Business value can be gained by operating sustainably, employees want to work for responsible companies, investors want to see that corporations are appropriately managing risks such as climate change and social unrest … the list goes on.

Still, sustainability is often maligned as a buzzword and misunderstood as a concept. Because it was first associated with the environmental movement, the word gets used as shorthand for organizations’ activities to minimize environmental impact. But in fact, the concept has come to encompass three overlapping spheres: environment, society and economics.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “sustainability creates and maintains conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

To realize these conditions, though, is an overwhelming task. Indeed, sustainability leaders believe we are entering a stage in which governments, corporations, non-government organizations (NGOs) and others have realized the problems are so difficult and complex that large-scale collaboration and best-practice sharing are required to move the needle. In short, all hands on deck.

Beyond joining the conversation to solve difficult environmental, social and economic problems, organizations need to think carefully about sustainability strategy and communication, because increasingly industry associations, regulators (mostly outside of the United States) and shareholders are pushing them to report their activities.

But many companies fear being targeted as greenwashers if they communicate anything about sustainability initiatives happening inside their doors.

The Center for Media and Democracy defines greenwashing as “the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even an NGO to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.”

While the term was coined in the 1980s, it regained prominence during the 2000s in response to the mushrooming of misleading and deceptive green marketing practices, including using labels such as natural, pure and earth-kind—instead of scientific evidence—to imply products were good for the environment.

But people became cynical and corporate reputations suffered as a result of companies spending more resources on marketing green products or image than on reducing their environmental and social impacts. NGOs and activists filed lawsuits. The Federal Trade Commission revised its Green Guides for advertisers. Consumers lost confidence in the environmental claims of products and brands.

While this backlash didn’t lead to greenwashing’s demise, it did spark an opposite phenomenon: greenhushing. Greenhushing refers to a company silencing itself about its authentic sustainability efforts for fear that even objectively talking about them could attract activist scrutiny and charges of greenwashing.

Is greenhushing stifling your organization from talking about real sustainability progress?

 

In Part 2 of this series, you can take our greenhushing quiz and learn how to start communicating sustainability internally, by engaging employees. In later posts, we’ll look at communicating externally, including through sustainability reporting.

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