Greenhushing, Greencrowding, and More: Say Hello to Greenwashing's Natural Evolution
Greenwashing is becoming more nuanced. Let's talk about the sophisticated iterations of the common marketing practice—and the need for regulation.
The business of sustainability is a complicated one. As eco-consciousness has made its way into the mainstream, so have marketing tactics designed to convince consumers that they're making a choice that's good for the planet, a common practice known as greenwashing.
Now, it seems that companies are beginning to get even craftier with their green-ish ways, the definition of greenwashing is expanding—and spurring new terms, in turn.
What Exactly Is Greenwashing?
According to the American Sustainable Business Network (ASBN), greenwashing is defined as “the act or practice of making a product, service, organization, or policy appear more environmentally friendly or less environmentally harmful than it actually is.” The word can also apply to initiatives that aren't quite what they seem.
“With more and more companies talking about sustainability and the aspects of their products, we have to be more careful than we’ve ever been in the language that we’re using so that we don’t confuse consumers and key stakeholders,” says Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation and current CEO of the ASBN.
Common instances of greenwashing are the use of greens and neutral hues, along with buzzwords that come with little backing or substance (think "sustainable," "clean," and "natural"). And though some suggested guidelines exist, there are currently no rules or regulations to prevent corporations from greenwashing.
“Just like everything else, if you’re a public company and you want to make claims about how your business is doing, it’s subject to a whole host of rules and regulations from the Federal Trade Commission,” says Hollender. “We need those same rules and regulations from the FTC so we don’t confuse people more than they are already confused.”
As greenwashing evolves, new words are emerging to describe updated iterations of the original approach—and, ultimately, further confusing the matter at hand. Here, three recent mutations of greenwashing.
The New Greenwashing Glossary
TL;DR: Focusing on one sustainable element or feature to distract from the rest.
Greenlighting is a greenwashing tactic that centers on diversion. As noted by Euronews, greenlighting is rampant in the car industry, with manufacturers like Toyota centering electric vehicles in their messaging even though the greener option makes up a minuscule fraction of the company's overall production.
TL;DR: A lack of transparency around announced eco plans.
This trend finds companies announcing sustainable initiatives, then going quiet in regard to movement. According to South Pole's 2022 Net Zero Report, the emerging practice (which is really a fancy word for radio silence) makes setting ambitious goals easy, but collaboration and meaningful action are far less likely.
TL;DR: Hiding in a group and moving at the slowest available pace.
Another method of distraction, greencrowding involves adopting a group initiative and then progressing at the pace of the slowest participant. Though industrywide and collaborative commitments are important, joint statements or goals that are less-than-clear can make tracking and achieving real progress a difficult feat.
TL;DR: The promise of an eventual elimination of emissions, often without transparency around the plan.
“I think the new claim that has caused a lot of concern is ‘net zero,’” says Hollender. “Companies that say that in five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, they will stop emitting any carbon. And I don’t think that companies should be allowed to make that net zero claim without a very very clear roadmap that details how they’re going to get there.”
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