Sustainability Corner: “Greenhushing” – A toxic silence?


“The deliberate downplaying of your sustainability practices for fear that it will make your company look less competent, or have a negative consequence for you.”

—-Prof. Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey, UK

Unveiling the dark side of corporate silence


In the lexicon of sustainability, new words and terminology pop up so often. These new terms frequently facilitate the understanding of new ideas and concepts, and sometimes, they outrightly confuse and complicate matters even worse. There is evidence to show that these new terms are knee-jerk reactions to existing terms like ‘greenwashing.’ Hence, the new terminology of ‘greenhushing,’ which many believe is a direct response to the increased accountability in calling out organisations and entities to mitigate ‘greenwashing’.

So let’s understand ‘greenhushing’ better. ‘Greenhushing’ refers to organizations that deliberately keep “hush” about their sustainability goals, commitments, and activities even if they are justified and credible, and there is a genuine fear of being labelled a ‘greenwasher.’

Even though, perhaps paradoxically, these companies have pro-environmental policies and initiatives with a sudden finger-on-the-lip tendency. Thus, these ‘greenhushers’ keep their sustainability policies and activities under wraps instead of effectively communicating or, worse, exaggerating sustainability policies, objectives, and actions that are impractical and unrealistic.

It remains to be seen if ‘greenhushing’ will continue like its antithesis, greenwashing. Greenwashing was conceived nearly four decades ago to describe how companies exaggerate their environmental credentials, and it has become so commonplace that it was recently added to the dictionary.

Is ’greenhushing’ good or bad?

It is widely reported that in the coming years, ‘greenhushing’ will only continue to grow. ‘Greenhushing’ can potentially hinder and stutter years of innovation and progress. This is because organisations go inward-looking around their sustainability practices, and as a result, so much intellectual capital and cross-fertilization opportunities get lost.

More concerning is that ‘greenhushing’ removes peer pressure in business communication to do good. However, the question remains, how on earth can ‘greenhushing’ be bad? Is it not good to do good without talking or boasting about it? Indeed, almost all of us would agree with this. Still, the trend is undoing years, if not decades, of relentless efforts to make organisations report and communicate their sustainability goals, activities, and, most importantly, progress.

For example, companies that are outspoken about pursuing green initiatives and greater sustainability can face backlash. For instance, in the United States, there was a recent ban on local organisations from doing business with specific financial institutions due to their announced intention to factor concerns about fossil fuels into investment decisions. A subsequent report by the South Pole consultancy indicated that many companies are trying to avoid similar retaliation by going dead quiet. It is estimated that roughly a quarter of the 1,200 firms it examined closely don’t plan to declare their science-based emissions targets, which are regarded as central to helping limit the worst impacts of climate change. That stirred up speculation that a new era of “greenhushing” may indicate a lack of progress.

Moreover, according to the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, organisations have long considered a need to turn down the volume of their sustainability focus occasionally.

Hence, this new phenomenon of ‘greenhushing’ to the Sustainability Initiative should not be a surprise. The Sustainability Initiative further states, “making claims ratchets up people’s expectations, and expectations lead to greater scrutiny, that scrutiny can lead to a kind of gotcha phenomenon.

If a side effect of setting a goal is that a bunch of people are yelling at [companies] from the outside for not getting there fast enough… that creates an incentive to be a little quieter.” The Sustainability Initiative also reported that a mere 160 large companies are seemingly responsible for 80% of global emissions.

They were making these companies potential targets and under massive scrutiny, resulting in a worldwide outbreak of regressive ‘greenhushing’ unlikely. Yes, companies now throw caution to the wind when reporting on their sustainability goals and objectives, which is their most pragmatic approach. But if looking at companies, for instance, HP’s “Force for Good” enterprise for sustainable companies to T-Mobile’s outcry to move the telco industry to net zero to Dell’s emphasis on the sustainability impacts of its Open Networking switches, none of them is hushing.

Still, silence could be problematic in some circumstances. Among big, publicly traded entities in the United States and Europe, entrenched sustainability norms would dull the impact of ‘greenhushing.’ However, those norms are less established among smaller companies in these places and for more prominent firms in other regions. Considering this, ‘greenhushing’ could be problematic if it impedes the progression of the norms into that new terrain.”

One analysis of greenwashing in the European Union last year established that approximately half of the “green online claims” made by organisations were overstated, dishonest, or inaccurate. Brazen data points like this have triggered legal crackdowns everywhere, from  Australia, where their competition watchdog recently made greenwashing an enforcement priority, to the EU, where a brand new EU Directive could prohibit environmental performance claims that can’t be backed up.

For instance, Ryannair and Shell are among many who have been called out recently for making inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims about their environmental impact. This has not gone unnoticed, as the UN Secretary-General recently condemned this practice, calling for “zero tolerance.” Furthermore, in the strongest tone possible, the UN Secretary-General reiterated that “net zero commitments can’t be a mere public relations exercise if we want to win the fight against climate change. We must have zero tolerance for greenwashing.”

It could be argued that there are practical reasons for ‘greenhushing’. Consequently, the issue of perception plays a significant role in ‘greenhushing’ as companies care deeply about how the public and the media perceive them. There’s also a perception predicament related to timing.

Companies are cautious to be the first to announce their ambitious goals and targets for fear of being criticized if they don’t meet their intended targets. The flip side is that these companies will inevitably get more press for it.

The South Pole report explains that science-based sustainability targets are “increasingly expected rather than exceptional.” So, why the hassle of media scrutiny for that problematic press release? This may be particularly true as long as doing so could create difficulty in places like the United States and the EU. However, it’s unclear how sustainable it is to target sustainability efforts.

According to one research study, the decision in the United States to prohibit contracting with banks that have particular environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies could cost local institutions as much as $532 million in additional interest in less than a year.

The verdict is still out whether ‘greenhushing’ is good or bad because it has much to do with opinions and perceptions. It can be said that there has been a healthy discussion regarding ‘greenhushing’ and its significance.


Greenhushing is not necessarily the antithesis of greenwashing, but it is potentially as toxic. We have seen that the fear of being called out is real. Companies opt to take the easy way, to stay out of the limelight and conversations.

They prefer to focus on other facets of business that will be perceived as less controversial and more core to the traditional business metrics. How can this be addressed constructively? What is clear is that publishing sustainability actions has been shown to inspire others, create paradigm shifts, and encourage collaborative approaches. In the worst-case scenario, the “stick” approach can always be used, allowing stricter enforcement to give companies less choice to practice ‘greenhushing’.

The takeaway from unpacking ‘greenhusing’ is not that companies are not doing anything or not making progress on their sustainability objectives and goals, but rather the way that they are talking about it has changed.

Reference What is greenhushing?

Fast Company(2023). What is ‘greenhushing’? The new negative sustainability trend explained.

Forbes(2023). Green Hushing In The Corporate World: Why ESG Is No Longer A Topic Of Discussion.

Green Economy(2023). What is green hushing and how to avoid it?

About the Writers:


Romein VAN STADEN, is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. Romein is a sustainability warrior, and he is multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors. Contact him via ([email protected])


Ebenezer ASUMANG, ||Development Communicator|PR|Green Finance| Sustainability nomad|| [email protected]


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