Will “Greenwashing” be replaced by “Greenhushing”?



Trewin Restorick asks is the era of unregulated “Greenwashing” ending only to be replaced by another phenomenon: “Greenhushing”.

In November, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, wryly commented that companies have been able to make green claims knowing that there were “enough loopholes to drive a diesel truck through”.

But change is happening fast with the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) clamping down on false claims. Companies have reacted quickly.

The CMA’s investigation into the fashion sector has coincided with Gucci, Italy’s most valuable luxury brand, dropping its claim to be entirely carbon neutral – a statement first made in 2019. Asos is reframing its new “net zero” target as soon as is practicable, reacting to the revelation that last year the company’s greenhouse gas emissions grew by 15%.

Colourful clog-maker Crocs pushed back its net zero targets by a decade, noting that its initial 2030 goal was set before the company fully understood its carbon footprint and failed to consider the business’s significant growth. In 2022, their greenhouse gas emissions jumped by 45%.

This new level of scrutiny has five implications for companies and advertising agencies. 

Bold statements will need evidence


Organisations will not be able to use broad terms such as “Carbon Neutral”, “Net Zero” or “Nature Positive” without hard evidence. The ASA has stated that companies must have proof that their carbon offsets are effective.

This will hit many companies as they have leaned on carbon offsets and plans to low carbon intensity or emissions per unit of output rather than absolute emissions – both features of the goals Asos set in 2021.

Warm words won’t cut it


Generic feel-good terms which cannot be measured will be scrutinised. These catch-all statements such as “natural”, “better for the environment” and “sustainable” have been the “go-to” for many advertisers to give a veneer of greenness to their products without having to do the hard graft of providing evidence.

Context will be important


To date, companies have been able to claim their products are “recyclable”, “compostable” or “biodegradable” without having to justify whether this happens.

Whilst technically their claims may be true, the day-to-day reality could be different as waste systems are frequently unable to cope with their products. There is a big difference between something that is “recyclable” and something that is actually “recycled”. It is likely that in the future regulators will close this wriggle room.

“Cherry Picking” will not be acceptable

cherry picking

It is sometimes tempting to shine the advertising spotlight on one positive narrow aspect of a product or service ignoring wider elements that might not be so beneficial. In future, these narrow claims will be examined against a broader context or impact. This could go as far as companies being asked to show that they have considered the full lifecycle analysis of the advertised item.

Mind the gap


The reputational and financial risks of misleading green claims are growing, but in many organisations, there is still a big gap between marketing and sustainability teams who often have competing objectives.

There can be an inherent tension between creating compelling stories against the reality of substantive facts. Companies will have to ensure that their advertising agencies have strong sustainability credentials and are working closely with legal teams to verify claims.

Will we see a new era of “greenhushing”?

Sustainble green building

There is no doubt that some companies have been playing “fast and loose” within the unregulated market making claims that cannot be substantiated and causing customer confusion.

However, there is a fine line that regulators need to tread otherwise companies will decide that promoting any green claim, no matter how valid, is too risky and instead say nothing. This trend has been described as “greenhushing”.

If “greenhushing” takes hold, consumers will be equally confused about which companies are making truly substantive steps to improve their environmental performance. It will also make it increasingly difficult to acknowledge that we are facing an impending environmental crisis and that rapid transformative change is required.

If “greenhushing” takes hold, consumers will be equally confused about which companies are making truly substantive steps to improve their environmental performance.

The area where companies are particularly concerned is the potential requirement to provide a lifecycle analysis to justify their advertised claims. Whilst solid principle in theory it suggests that the regulators don’t fully understand the complexity of providing this information, particularly for complicated supply chains.

It is to be hoped that as the new regime takes hold, regulators will be sufficiently enlightened to ensure that companies still have the confidence to make valid green claims enabling consumers to understand the scale of the challenge we face and to make more informed choices. If not, the current hubbub will turn into an unhelpful silence.

Got something to say on this article or topic? Submit your views and contact the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk.

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