Greenwashing, greenhushing and developing your career in the field of sustainability

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

“There’s a kind of hush, all over the world tonight ….”  This old Carpenters song has been going round and around in my head since I chaired a recent CIPR ESG Panel event on greenwashing. The focus was how to avoid over-egging your organisation’s environmental credentials and falling into the trap of greenwashing. But one of the other interesting themes to come out of the event was the rise of greenhushing – where organisations decide it’s perhaps safer to say nothing at all.

The problem is if nothing is being said then is anything being done? Deterring organisations in this way is certainly not the intention of regulators and policy makers but it can feel to those new to sustainability communications (and that will probably be the majority of PR and communication professionals) the plethora of regulations and the difficult language in this area looks daunting to say the least.

At that recent CIPR ESG Panel Webinar Miles Lockwood, Director of Complaints and Investigations at the Advertising Standards Association (ASA), gave some really useful guidance. The ASA has been much in the news recently taking to task green adverts from the likes of Etihad and Shell.  From the ASA’s point of view whilst the move into looking at green claims in this way may be new what underpins it certainly is not.

The ASA’s job is making sure the average consumer is not misled when buying a product or service.

The ASA’s job is making sure the average consumer is not misled when buying a product or service. This is delivering on consumer protection legislation that has been with us for years. Miles Lockwood during the webinar gave some helpful examples. A company claimed its plastic grass substitute was eco-friendly and recyclable. But can plastic grass really be eco-friendly?  For one thing it is replacing natural habitat. And in terms of recyclable it was only that if you managed to transport the no longer needed plastic grass to a single recyclable centre in Norway. ASA verdict: misleading.

Another aspect of being misleading is not making the basis of your environmental claims clear.  Statements such as ‘good for you, good for the planet’ raise as many questions as they answer. Is it good for the planet because of the packaging, because of how the item is produced etc?  Such claims require substantiation in some way. Claims must also cover the whole lifecycle of the product or if they don’t it must be clear which part they do cover. Similarly, you can’t just say plant-based burgers are better for the planet than a traditional meat burger. How has that plant-based burger been produced exactly? Some plant-based ingredients such as palm oil are quite controversial because of the impact they have on the environment.

Lastly and the issue that has grabbed the headlines lately is the one of misleading by omission. This is what caught out HSBC and more recently the oil giant Shell. Shell were keen to communicate the lower emission energy products that it offers but the ASA took the view that this activity was a much smaller part of Shell’s entire business which is mostly focussed on fossil fuels. The ASA ruling was that the ads gave the overall impression that low-carbon energy products comprised a “significant proportion of the energy products Shell invested in and sold in the UK in 2022 or were likely to do so in the near future.” And currently that is not the case.

Many of the green claims being made currently are “Too big, too vague, too unqualified, too absolute.”

As the ASA’s Miles Lockwood said on the webinar many of the green claims being made currently are “Too big, too vague, too unqualified, too absolute.” Clear guidance on what we need to avoid.

Now PR is not advertising (although we all agree the lines between advertising and PR are more blurred than they have ever been) but the same sentiments are embodied in the Competition & Markets Authority’s Green Claims Code. And this could be applied to materials produced for PR purposes. Again it is all around making sure the average consumer has the correct information on which to base a decision to buy.

One of the other issues almost certainly driving greenhushing is the language barrier.  Lots of the sustainability concepts are highly technical and new to many of us. A recent report by Radley and Yedlar “Words that work” found that 72% of sustainability managers have a Masters degree. Nothing wrong with that but it may help us to understand why the language around sustainability is often quite technical and needs a degree of translation if it is to be accessible and engaging. But then again, I have often said PR people are translators: we are used to taking the language and jargon of our organisations and making it relevant and salient to our stakeholders.

What we should try to avoid is reaching for the comfort blanket of a familiar cliché. Radley and Yedlar identified eight clichés we hear over and over again in sustainability communications including: ‘we are committed’, ‘our journey’, ‘building a better…’ and so on and so on. Interestingly from their analysis the most sustainable brands used the term sustainability itself very sparingly indeed. Those just beginning on their “journey” used the term repeatedly. A case perhaps of the lady doth protest too much.

Radley and Yedlar’s recommendations on how to get it right should be familiar to the professional communicator. Segment your audiences and tailor messages to fit in with what they already think, feel and do.  Use the language your stakeholders use to talk about sustainability issues and provide concrete examples and engaging narratives from real life. One way to do this – and again a familiar one – it to bring in diverse voices to ensure you really understand the issue from the audience’s point of view.

Think about how you frame your messages especially getting the right balance between scaremongering and providing constructive actions stakeholders can take. This is around self-efficacy, if the problem feels too big and our audiences feel there is nothing they can do they will disengage. Finally, go down to the granular level rather than just talking about limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Tell the human stories of what your employees are doing to make this happen. Above all make it real and in keeping with your brand.

Remember you are not alone. Communicating sustainability messaging is challenging and it is a new and emerging branch of public relations. The CIPR has set up an ESG Panel (I am one of the members) so do engage with what we get up to in terms of webinars and skills guides.

The CIPR has also recently launched its Specialist Diploma: Sustainability Communication that you can study with PR Academy. I’m looking forward to running the live workshop to support the course.

Investing in your skills in this area is a real investment in your career. Knowledge of how to communicate sustainability issues well is a much looked-for skill for a growing number of organisations and companies. All to play for in terms of you and the planet – if that’s not too much of a cliché.