Silence Hinders Progress Towards A Sustainable Future

Silence Hinders Progress Towards A Sustainable Future

In this guest post, Julia Hoy (lead image), Sefiani’s head of sustainability and Commscon’s PR Professional of the Year 2022, explains why the wave of green-hushing has created a reset on sustainability communications and what brands should do about it…

Net zero became a core principle for every business following COP26 last year, with organisations worldwide making public commitments to limit global warming. Fast forward to today, and we now see many companies backtracking and removing public disclosures around their net zero commitments and claims about their pathways to climate action.

Greenwashing rose like a wave in the wake of COP26 as companies looked to find a way to use sustainability claims to differentiate their products, services and investments, but now green hushing is the tide pulling back – and it’s spreading. Green hushing, where companies choose not to publicise or communicate about their environmental or sustainability goals, has become more prevalent in response to the increased scrutiny companies face over their ‘green’ claims and the crackdown by regulators on greenwashing. According to the 2022 Net Zero report from consultancy firm South Pole, while an increasing number of climate-aware companies support their net zero commitments with science-based targets, one in four do not plan to discuss them.

What is driving this change of heart? Many companies do not want to take the risk of using any language that could be deemed misleading, that might lead to punitive action from corporate or consumer watchdogs – or cause them to face similar financial and reputational damage to Mercer, an organisation which was just taken to court by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) over greenwashing claims. In recent weeks, we have also seen many other organisations about-face their disclosures: Australian Super removed its climate report and “net zero by 2050” fact sheet from its website, and UniSuper also updated its 2022 climate risk report, removing a reference to its commitment to “continually improve disclosure of our carbon footprint in the ‘glide-path’ to net zero.”

Keeping it simple isn’t that simple

This new trend illuminates how hard it can be to publicly communicate about sustainability. Turning the complexities of a net zero pathway into something simple and digestible for all is a challenging feat, especially when every industry is currently facing unique challenges without all the necessary solutions. Innovation is being tested, new concepts are being trialled, business models are transforming, and with every step forward, there is a trade-off that can be even more challenging to communicate.

Often it is incredibly difficult to condense or encapsulate a strategy with a pithy slogan on the side of a pack or a brochure. We’re seeing the result of these communicative complexities; some companies took shortcuts, and these shortcuts led to others taking larger liberties leading us to a landscape awash with green claims and nowhere near enough action. When the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) performed its recent internet sweep, it identified 57% of businesses making concerning claims.

Rather than a new and looming burden, the increased scrutiny and regulation in the corporate landscape should be welcomed to help correct the market after a proliferation of greenwashing. However, it shouldn’t lead to companies reducing their ambitions, redirecting their strategic focus or progressing their achievements unseen, behind closed doors. More than ever, we need companies to live up to their commitments with openness, honesty, and transparency – but how can organisations bridge this divide with their sustainability communications?

A new vocabulary for sustainability Considering the recent banning of vague catch-all terms like ‘green’, ‘kind to the planet’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘biodegradable’, companies genuinely doing the right thing will now have a better opportunity to tell their story because the rules of the game have been changed by the regulators. Companies can no longer overstate claims to get ahead in the market.

However, it’s important to note that many brands called out for greenwashing didn’t set out to greenwash. In many cases, these brands are doing good work towards science-based targets but made a communicative misstep due to a disconnect between their teams, from trying to keep pace with a greenwashing competitor, or due to varying levels of optimism within the company about its impact. Taking an evidence-based approach, and one infused with authenticity about the pathways your organisation is on, resets the communications landscape on sustainability.

The new rules are simple: claim and explain or choose to withhold until you can be bold

Considering the market’s recent communication correction, there should no longer be green or environmental cues on products without claims that can be supported by evidence, or unsupported terms or promises beyond an organisation’s control. This will force communications and marketing teams to think more vigilantly about sustainability. Green claims will have to be earned, and the more runs a company has on the board, the easier it will be to tell its story.

Levelling up our knowledge

Whether we’re communicating internally or externally, everyone needs to level up their understanding of sustainability. A limited knowledge of sustainability by external stakeholders has enabled some brands to overstate their claims without being questioned. Similarly, a lower level of comprehension of sustainability within organisations, can lead to one department exaggerating the claims provided by another.

As a society, we need to level up our understanding of sustainability to enable more people to ask the right questions. Doing so will also lead to more open and useful conversations about the very real challenges companies try to overcome daily.

Better communications support more sustainable outcomes

Staying silent about challenges and progress hinders our ability to achieve sustainable outcomes. It holds back collaboration and innovation, impedes progress and removes the incentive for competitors to step up.

Now is not the time to stay silent or hide progress behind closed doors. It’s the time for transparency, openness, and honesty. And companies that are ready to step up and have an authentic conversation, to claim and explain, educate their people and their stakeholders and collaborate for greater impact will be the ones in the strongest position in today’s sustainability communications reset.

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