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How companies can be clearer — and more credible — with their climate pledges

A growing trend of ‘greenhushing’ is keeping companies quiet. A data-driven approach and clear communication about emission reductions goals can help them change course.

Net zero icons and symbols hovering over a laptop keyboard

Image via Shutterstock/lumerb

We’ve all heard of greenwashing — the practice of making a company look more environmentally friendly than it actually is, through clever marketing campaigns.

But what about greenhushing? It’s a growing practice — on the other end of the spectrum — that’s posing a significant problem for climate progress. With greenhushing, companies hesitate or altogether decline to disclose their decarbonization efforts, for fear of criticism or backlash.

"Greenhushing is way more harmful than greenwashing," said Michelle Li, founder of Clever Carbon and Women and Climate, speaking at the GreenBiz NetZero conference last week.

It’s a surprisingly prominent problem, even among companies doing some of the most ambitious work around emissions reduction, according to Li and the other panelists. Firms will sometimes set a broad goal without detailing how they’ll get there, or fail to disclose progress and challenges on their way to meeting a sustainability target.

"Many companies that are genuine are the ones that are greenhushing," Li said. "They want to be perfect and ironclad, and that’s really just not possible in climate."

Janet Peace, head of advisory services at climate solutions firm Anew, sees the same thing: "The momentum has slowed a little bit. It’s not so much that companies aren’t doing things, they’re just not talking about them." 

So how can companies change course and be more transparent? Li, along with her fellow panelists at NetZero, have a few suggestions for communicating climate goals while maintaining credibility.

Dig into the data

It’s really easy for a company to throw a "net zero" or "carbon neutral" pledge together that’s light on details. Those are the types of marketing claims most vulnerable to criticism.

But business leaders need not avoid making — and communicating — these commitments. Instead, they should work to back them up with good data.

Shannon Siart, lead ESG adviser at NASDAQ, said a baseline for data should include a report on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, at the very least, with an attempt at measuring Scope 3 emissions. Without that, "speaking about a net-zero strategy is going to come off as completely not credible," Siart said on the NetZero panel.

Companies can bolster that data by engaging third parties for an audit or verification. That can be as simple as a "desktop review" of the data itself, or a more in-depth process involving site visits. 

"Having third-party verification is really great for lending credibility," Siart said.

The panelists emphasized, however, that none of this data or strategy will have its intended impact if it’s not understood and embraced by senior management. "The C-suite and senior leadership buy-in is so important and so critical," Li said. "We need our leaders to be carbon literate."

Siart, who has an inside view on the vetting process used by investment analysts, said that even a solid decarbonization plan can be seen as "fluff" if the highest levels of leadership are not conversant in its details. "It’s another way to lend credibility, if senior leaders can clearly articulate a net-zero strategy," she said.

Keep the language simple

So you’ve got a solid emissions reduction plan, backed up by verified data. Now how do you go about communicating it well?

It may actually be easier to wade into the public conversation by circumventing terms such as "net zero," and anchoring your language in concrete facts, instead.

"Avoid using subjective terminology for initiatives that are actually data-driven," Li said. For example, a clothing manufacturer might be tempted to slap a label such as "climate neutral" on a jacket, but that doesn’t actually convey much to the consumer. Instead, Li suggests, the manufacturer could spell out the environmental impacts of the product, and how they’re being mitigated.

Siart also encourages companies to ease their anxiety about transparency by making sure their climate goals are supported by third-party frameworks for decarbonization.

"If you’re a company that’s trying to lend credibility to your net-zero strategy, the credibility is tied to the climate science," Siart said. You can’t just set a goal for 2050 and call it a day. "You need to have short-term goals, there’s no doubt about that."

But at the end of the day, Li and Peace see more communication from companies — even if it’s not totally perfect, or could be seen as greenwashing — as a better problem to have than less communication.

"The more people talk about climate, the more likely we are going to have real climate action in the long term," Peace said.

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