The "greenhushing" trend takes an opposite apporach to greenwashing.
While many brands and companies are keen to boast about their "eco-friendly" strategies, others—on the contrary—can be doing much more without talking it up, or even mentioning it at all. This is a trend known as "greenhushing," the opposite approach to greenwashing.
As promises of sustainability, fair trade or environmental friendliness proliferate on certain products, consumers are becoming increasingly wary of such claims. Faced with the widespread phenomenon of greenwashing, more and more NGOs are no longer hesitating to single out, and call out, the dubious "pro-environmental" practices employed by major companies. Indeed, the world of advertising should take note: in September, an advert broadcast in the United Kingdom for Persil laundry detergent (from the Unilever group) was banned from TV screens by the British advertising authority, which judged its environmental claims to be too vague.
However, some brands are making genuine efforts, committing themselves to eco-responsible approaches that hold up to scrutiny. For example, by using natural, local and biodegradable raw materials for cosmetic products or clothing. The problem is that, overall, they are less likely to promote them than those who are in the business of greenwashing. This phenomenon has been observed for several years and is described by the term "greenhushing," or sometimes "eco-silence."
There may be many reasons for this discretion. For example, a company may consider that its commitment is sincere and therefore voluntarily avoid making too much of it, for fear of being accused of opportunism. Others may fear losing potential customers by insisting too much on the naturalness of certain products, fearing that consumers will perceive them as less effective. But the most frequently identified explanation in the various studies and articles analyzing greenhushing is the fear of being perceived as "not doing enough" on the environmental level, and of ending up being criticized by consumers. This reticence is especially expressed by small brands that are trying to make a name for themselves.
Consumers seeking transparency
While this apparent display of modesty may seem positive at first glance, it can become counterproductive, in that it deprives other companies of inspiring examples. And for consumers too—how can shoppers judge brands' environmentally commitment if there are no defining examples in the market? Moreover, the logic of passing up on messaging surrounding ecological commitments—especially if virtuous—can be questioned, bearing in mind that a growing number of consumers are actively looking for products that meet these criteria.
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A study conducted in Austria, the results of which were published in 2020 in the Journal of Travel Research, set out to investigate how guests reacted to hotel establishments and how they communicated around their 'green' approach. The researchers report that: "Our findings ... seem to show a consistent picture—there appears to be little evidence that justifies greenhushing from the customers’ perspective." On the contrary, the study clearly shows an expectation of transparency on the part of consumers regarding the pro-environmental approaches of companies and brands.
This is especially true since communicating about eco-responsible commitments does not necessarily prevent a brand or company from staying grounded in reality. This is something that Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard recently proved when he announced his decision to give away the company (valued at $3 billion) to a trust and a group of environmental NGOs. Known for its long-standing commitment to the environment, the American brand explained a year earlier through an open letter that the brand voluntarily did not use the term "sustainable" in its messaging. "Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem," explained Beth Thoren, Patagonia's director of environmental action and initiatives.
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