Greenhushing vs Greenwashing? Can You Tell the Difference?
When a company makes a green claim about its products or brand, can you spot a lie? If the claims are vague, is it greenwashing or is it greenhushing, and does the difference even matter?
As consumers, it’s becoming increasingly important to consider the environmental impact of the products and services we use. However, it can be challenging to navigate the marketing tactics used by companies that claim to be environmentally friendly. Two such tactics are greenwashing and greenhushing, and they can be confusing to distinguish between.
Definition of Greenwashing
Greenwashing is a practice where a company makes exaggerated or false claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service. The intent is to deceive consumers into believing that the product or service is more eco-friendly than it actually is. A well-known example of greenwashing is Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” scandal, where the company claimed its cars met emissions standards when in fact, they did not. The scandal, which involved the company installing software in its diesel cars to cheat emissions tests, had a significant impact on the company’s market share, revenue, and brand value. In 2016, the company settled with the US government for $14.7 billion. In addition to that, the company has paid billions of dollars in fines and compensation to customers and investors around the world.
Definition of Greenhushing
This occurs when a company promotes its products or services as environmentally friendly without providing sufficient evidence to support these claims. Greenhushing can occur accidentally due to a lack of knowledge or understanding about the environmental impact of a product or service. For instance, a company might claim that its product is “100% natural” when it actually contains synthetic ingredients.
The key difference between the two practices is intent. Greenwashing is a deliberate attempt to deceive consumers, while greenhushing is often, or at least can be, unintentional. However, both are harmful because they can mislead consumers into purchasing decisions not aligned with their values or into supporting products or companies that are not sustainable.
How to Spot Greenhushing
The first thing to look out for is vague claims without supporting evidence. For instance, a company might claim that its product is “eco-friendly” without explaining what that means or providing any evidence to back it up. In this case, it’s important to dig deeper and do your research.
One way to determine a company’s green intent is to look for third-party certifications or labels that indicate a product or service is truly eco-friendly. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification indicates that a wood or paper product comes from responsibly managed forests. The USDA Organic label indicates that a food product meets certain organic standards in agriculture.
Another red flag to watch out for is products that claim to be “100% natural” or “chemical-free.” In reality, these claims are often misleading – everything is made up of chemicals, and the word natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe or eco-friendly.
At a more high level, when deciding if you want to buy from a company at all as opposed to specific products, is to look at where their ESG management comes from. If it is an entire department with a high-ranking manager like a Chief Sustainability Officer, that is a good indication that the brand is taking ESG seriously. If the ESG function of a brand falls under the direction of marketing and branding, that is a serious red flag. This information is typically found on a corporate website or in organizational charts that are publicly available in publicly traded companies.
Real-World Examples of Greenhushing
A famous example of greenhushing is Coca-Cola’s “PlantBottle,” made with only 30% plant-based materials. The company claims the bottle is more eco-friendly than a traditional plastic bottle, but because it’s still mostly made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it is still bad for the environment. Further, PlantBottle only makes up a small portion of Coca-Cola’s overall packaging. In fact, as of 2021, less than 10% of Coca-Cola’s packaging was made from plant-based materials, according to the company’s own sustainability report.
Fast fashion retailer H&M has been criticized for its “Conscious Collection.” The collection features clothes made from organic cotton, recycled polyester, and other sustainable materials. However, critics argue that the company’s overall business practices are actually not sustainable. For example, H&M has been accused of overproducing clothes, which leads to excess waste. The fast fashion industry is generally known for its negative environmental and social impacts, including excessive water usage, waste generation, and poor working conditions in factories. The idea that H&M can create environmentally conscious clothing without making major changes to their entire business model is frankly a little unbelievable at best.
Another example is the skincare brand Neutrogena. The company markets its “Naturals” line as being made with “100% natural ingredients.” However, the line still contains synthetic ingredients and preservatives, which can harm the environment. Critics argue that the company is greenhushing by using vague language to make its products appear more eco-friendly than they actually are.
I like to think companies have good intentions when promoting their eco-friendly products. Still, it’s very important for consumers to look beyond marketing claims. If something doesn’t seem right, phone customer service, send emails, and if they don’t respond, turn to social media. The last thing a brand wants is bad publicity, and the very worst is to be cancelled.
As an informed citizen, it is important to be able to distinguish between greenwashing and greenhushing. While greenwashing is a deliberate attempt to deceive, greenhushing can occur accidentally due to a lack of knowledge or understanding about the environmental impact of a product or service.
Look for third-party certifications or labels, and be wary of vague claims without supporting evidence. By being a savvy consumer, you can make purchasing decisions that align with your values and help support a more sustainable future. Hold the company’s feet to the fire and force them to do the right thing.