Brands started feverishly marketing their sustainability efforts about five years ago upon realizing a new generation of consumers was choosing to buy from carbon-conscious companies. But in doing so, some brands got backlash for greenwashing, while others realized it was tougher than originally thought to hit their goals.
Those impediments are now forcing some companies to pull back in their environmental marketing, even if they are making some progress on sustainability. The trend — dubbed “green hushing” by climate project developer and solutions provider South Pole — has already led to cutbacks on social media marketing, where much of the sustainability conversation occurs.
South Pole in a recent report found that one in four of the 1,220 global companies it surveyed with targets to reach net zero emissions by a certain year do not plan to publicize their sustainability efforts as they go. They are quietly making moves though, as 72 percent of the surveyed companies have set net zero target dates (although that compares to just 7 percent of South Pole’s larger database of 68,000 major global public companies), and 74 percent of those businesses have increased their budgets to become sustainable. Still, the report also found that 29 percent of surveyed companies said achieving their net zero goals was harder than originally expected.
Brands that fail to market their progress are making a mistake, suggests George Favaloro, head of South Pole climate solutions, North America.
“The best practice is to do the work on understanding your carbon footprint, set a target, hopefully an ambitious target, and then get to work on reducing your carbon emissions,” he said. “A very important part of that is to talk about what you’re doing. It’s important that we all inspire each other and we show each corporation is stepping up and being responsible and has figured out how to take action. That’s the kind of message that’s really powerful.”
Companies could also be missing out on sales if they aren’t communicating that they are working toward sustainability to the growing cohort of climate-conscious consumers choosing to buy from green companies.
Greenwashing fears are real
But marketing and sustainability expert Thomas Kolster said he has increasingly been hearing that chief marketing officers of big brands are fearful of advertising their green efforts and expects there to be a dropoff in green marketing in 2023 from those companies after many jumped on the trend about five years ago.
“I think green hushing is a strategy that has come out of the cynicism that's arrived right now where people are calling out companies for foolish claims or greenwashing,” Kolster said.
Much of the green marketing pullback is occurring on social media: Customer experience marketing platform Emplifi observed a 52 percent drop in U.S. brand posts on Instagram that used sustainability hashtags between 2019 — when there was a surge in such posts on the platform — and 2021, according to figures shared with Ad Age. Instagram is where the majority of brands talk about sustainability, over Facebook or Twitter, according to Emplifi.