Greenwashing is the corporate image version of money laundering − a way to maintain the status quo under a shiny thin veneer of change. One of greenwashing's negative effects is that it dissuades genuinely green companies from promoting their own far more substantial green practices. Companies that are authentically doing good stay silent, for fear that they'll be tarred with the same brush as those who are carrying on with business as usual. We hereby christen this unfortunate phenomenon "greenhushing." Although its intent is admirable, its effect is almost as negative as greenwashing. Here's why:
We have long argued that it's simply good business for companies to extract market value for their investments in sustainability. Sourcing recycled materials and enforcing labor standards costs more money than conventional practices, it is are also more appealing to consumers. We think that companies that fail to integrate their responsible practices into their brand are selling themselves short. But the argument against greenhushing is deeper than that. It falls into two main categories.
1. WE NEED INFLUENCERS. Authentic change requires extensive participation. We need vanguards to exert as much influence as possible. The UK food and clothing retailer Marks and Spencer's ambitious Plan A initiative goes a long way toward reducing the company's environmental impact – and, equally as important, it has raised the bar for sustainability in the entire retail sector. Businesses in other categories need to step up and raise the bar as well – in our work in green branding, we were recently involved in helping an extremely influential company take a significant step toward sustainability, yet they were not comfortable going public with their initiative. If they had, we are positive others would have followed in their footsteps.
2. WE NEED TO EXPOSE THE FAKERS. If the real leaders are quiet about their sustainability initiatives, it leaves the field open for the pretenders. From our conversations with NGOs working in the field, we understand that Ikea is doing some pioneering work in sourcing FSC-certified lumber, yet your average Ikea customer knows nothing about this. If Ikea took its efforts further and worked to educate its customers about FSC certification, it would push other home furnishing companies towards sustainable sourcing -- and it would make it harder for competitors to use inferior certification standards.
ASIDE: We should note that what can appear to be greenhushing can, at times, be an act of good timing and smart strategy. For all we know, Ikea could be working on an engaging, deeply informative communications initiative right this second, or waiting until they have all their ducks in a row before unleashing their publicity machine. We hope this is the case and we look forward to seeing them shout about it from their flat-pack rooftops.
It's surprising how often we hear deeply committed clients expressing caution about communicating their good actions. These are some of the arguments we've heard - along with our thoughts on why greenhushing doesn't wash:
"We don't want to be seen as bragging." This objection ignores how communication is executed. If you communicate well, it shouldn't feel like you're bragging. You can be celebratory and even funny, as Patagonia were with their call to "Bring us your underwear." You can be transparent, as evidenced by Timberland's use of the Nutrition Facts Panel to highlight the impact of their shoes. If you avoid hyperbole, you tell the truth, and you communicate with style and panache, then bragging won't be an issue.
"We're not really doing all we can." This objection has legitimacy. If you promote half-measures as being cutting-edge, then you're straight back to greenwashing – and you'll soon be called out for it. Usually, the solution is disclosure. If your activities, though limited, represent leadership within your category, then we suggest you communicate them with modesty and full transparency. Tell people what you are doing right, but also tell them what you could be doing better. Being candid about your shortcomings can make you more credible and more likeable, and it preempts activists from revealing the skeletons in your closet.
"We don't want to look like treehuggers." Yes, there is still a perception out there that environmentalists are self-righteous, joyless soapboxers who care more about trees than people. But just as the way to avoid bragging is, basically, not to brag, the way to avoid self-righteousness is simply not to be self-righteous — show you care about people, show you are having fun. Let folks know that sustainability is smart, good for people and, dare we say it, sexy.
Whatever you do, it's important to remember that talking about green is just as important as being green. In green marketing at the moment there's a proliferation of slogans that end with the phrase "one blank at a time." "Saving the world, one coffee cup at a time." But that's not the way it works. One action doesn't change the world. It has to be done by thousands at a time, then millions, and ultimately billions. Let's get the numbers rolling. Let's speak up.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic. To view his previous posts on the ins and outs of green branding and marketing, follow this link.