Demystifying Greenwashing, Greenwishing & Greenhushing

GFA breaks down the ‘three greens’

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Just when you thought you were savvy to sustainability lingo, a new term comes along, so it’s unsurprising that there’s some confusion for citizens. Below, we break down the ‘three greens’: greenwashing, greenwishingand greenhushing.

What is greenwashing?

As the demand (and necessity) for sustainable products has grown, as has the number of sustainability claims from brands, with almost every company having at least some kind of sustainability hub on its website.

First used by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s, Greenwashing entails misleading or unsubstantiated claims about environmental credentials to improve a brands image. Think the co-opting of terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘conscious’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ with no credible backing. It cultivates a culture of climate confusion and misinformation and misguides customers. Backlash to such claims is on the rise in the form of customer scrutiny and legal action.

Aside from a marketing tactic, Greenwashing is in part perhaps due to the historical lack of industry-wide standards and the fact that thus far, these declarations of social and environmental performance have been voluntary and largely under-regulated.

What is greenwishing?

Perhaps the most emergent term, ‘greenwishing’ was coined by Duncan Austin in a 2019 essay. He describes this latest affliction as, ‘the earnest hope that well-intended efforts to make the world more sustainable are much closer to achieving the necessary change than they really are.

Austin deems it to be the most challenging to unravel by nature of how widespread it is, and the good and virtuous intentions that often underlie it.

Whilst the last couple of decades have seen an influx in dialogues, commitments and people taking up chief sustainability officer roles at companies, in practice, real-world environmental metrics are progressively worsening at unprecedented rates. Greenwishing is the failure of sustainability efforts to materially contribute to climate change mitigation. Ultimately, Austin concludes that we must advocate for policy change and form alliances to achieve the necessary systemic change.

Mark Trexler believes that well-intentioned greenwishing can quickly digress into greenwashing when leaders establish that their aspirational measures will likely not materialise into substantive climate change mitigation. Continuing to promote these measures is therefore greenwashing.

What is greenhushing?

With scrutiny and criticism of climate-related claims on the rise, companies may become reluctant to divulge anything to do with climate activities. Is Greenhushing now set to become the new norm?

First proposed by the firm Treehugger, Greenhushing entails reducing external communication about climate commitments to avoid critique for failing short on them and extends to those doing legitimate sustainability performance improvements. It is the result of both the heavy criticism directed at climate-claims as well as a lack of aligned methodologies and governmental guidance on an industry-wide framework.

At present, there are no clear rules or even consistent guidelines that greenwashing accusations need to follow before claimed and communicated broadly. The current practice (or lack of) can prompt a proliferation of unsubstantiated greenwashing claims, diminishing the incentive for companies to be open about their efforts.

Given the circumstances – silence feels like the safest option for some. South Pole’s 2022 Net Zero reportfound that whilst more and more companies are adopting science-based targets, of the 1,200 surveyed organisations, 25% are not communicating about this.

But this can be a dangerous mindset. Companies doing important work may no longer disclose such efforts and brands become impossible to assess if not communicating about sustainability measures. Moreover, it is undeniable that widespread sustainability messaging has enabled the topic to gain prominence among citizens. Greenhushing results in missed opportunities to engage customers in the environmental discourse.

Going forward

Fundamentally, the industry must champion the changemakers who are making real impact – we cannot afford slow down progress in the pursuit of perfection. Moreover, without a unanimous agreement on sustainability, everything will be greenwashing to someone. Therefore, a legislative framework on sustainable fashion which accounts for the global nature of textile supply chains is necessary. To accompany this, accurate and robust supply chain data needs to be transparently communicated to underpin any claims.

  • Explore our article demystifying traceability and transparency here.

Though green claims are likely to be influenced by a number of global policies on sustainability, some pertain to them directly.

The EU Substantiating Green Claims legislative proposal is set to launch on 22 March 2023 and is aimed at greenwashing and addressing the shortcoming in existing disclosure rules on sustainability. The highly anticipated proposal would be the first global initiative aimed at tackling greenwashing.

In September 2021, the UK Competition and Markets Authority published its Green Claims Code to help businesses foster trust with customers and to understand if they are following legal protocol.

Global Fashion Agenda will continue to inform the industry and its stakeholders about the complex nuances around substantiating sustainability claims on product level and collaborate with the leading organisations that are addressing the current data gaps and tirelessly working to update and align methodologies.

  • Explore our guide to sustainable fashion communication here.

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