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Speaking Sustainably

Want to stop greenhushing? Make sustainability a strategic growth decision

Purpose plays an important role, too.

Illustration of greenhushing shows a paper head with its mouth crossed out.

Illustration of greenhushing shows a paper head with its mouth crossed out. Credit: Shutterstock/faithie

There are a lot of reasons to keep your company’s mouth shut about what you’re doing for people and the planet right now:

But there are also a lot of reasons to talk about what you’re doing for people and the planet, particularly around climate change. From our latest global Eco Pulse study, which gathered responses from people in 12 countries:

  • 85 percent of people are somewhat to extremely interested in hearing from companies about what they’re doing to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • 71 percent say that their opinion of a company would somewhat to greatly improve if they knew the company was a leader in GHG emissions reduction.
  • Only 8 percent said their opinion of a company would somewhat to greatly decrease if they knew the company was a leader in GHG emissions reduction.

This matters because 45 percent of people around the world want to be seen as someone who is buying eco-friendly products. In short, more than ever people are putting their money where their values are. And what we hear from consumers often is, "If a company isn’t telling me what they’re doing for the world, I assume they’re doing nothing."

So this, on its surface, puts you between a rock and a hard place — there’s a clear need to tell your sustainability story, but telling it could put your company at risk of social backlash or even lawsuits.

The solve for this is simple — but not easy.

I think what we’ve seen a lot of thus far is communications about commitments or programs or a specific green attribute that are cooked up by the sustainability team, a brand team or a communications team. Sometimes the story is a collaborative effort between those groups. Where we need to go — and how you can thread the needle between greenhushing and greenwashing — is for sustainability and social impact to be decided upon at the executive team and board level. What your company is going to double-down on for people and the planet needs to be a part of your business strategy.

Many companies are already heading in this direction, in terms of having board committees devoted to ESG. But I fear the current approach is focused on compliance — the things a company has to do to meet regulatory standards and be credible — rather than on value creation.

I’m not privy to whether there was a board-level, strategic discussion at Nike when it decided to back Colin Kaepernick. But everything about that move looks like an incredibly strategic, calculated decision to show what the brand stands for (at a time when Nike was beset with scandals), and reinvigorate the brand, which certainly wasn’t seen to be as cool as it was in the ‘90s. And it worked. The value of the brand grew, and sales grew as well.

Unlike Target and Bud Light, when the highly predictable criticism came, Nike didn’t back down and try to have it both ways or try to appease both the haters and the fans. It stayed the course and, in fact, doubled down on its support of Kaepernick.

So make your decisions about sustainability at the highest levels of your organization — in fact, create a collaborative of the ultimate decision-makers on brand, communications and corporate strategy — and game out, "If we commit to X and tell the world, what backlash can we imagine? And how will we handle it?" Further, do your market research to understand which things you can commit to and be famous for related to people and the planet that will create the most brand lift.

If your sustainability story is tied to your corporate strategy and your company’s purpose — if it’s part of how you’re going to grow your company — then there is no backlash, no matter how people react. People can complain that Patagonia is too high and mighty about the environment, but that hasn’t made the company back down; and people can complain that Chick-fil-A should be open on Sundays, but it hasn’t caused the company to make that decision.

So stop greenhushing — and avoid the risks of greenwashing — by tying sustainability to your corporate purpose and growth strategy. Consumers are hungry for you to put your money where your values are — just like they’re doing.

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