Edelman’s US Head of Sustainability Says CEOs Are Making a Mistake by Giving Into the ‘Greenhushing’ Trend – and Offers an Alternative Approach

(Courtesy of Edelman)

Alex Heath, Edelman’s U.S. Head of Social Impact & Sustainability, had a conversation with one of his firm’s clients recently that captured what CEOs and their leadership teams are struggling with across the country. And while he couldn’t share specific details of that discussion due to client privacy, its basics are familiar with anyone who has been even casually following business news for the past couple years.

This client personally cared about a social issue affecting the United States, and had to decide if they would speak to it on behalf of the company. After all, Edelman’s Trust Barometer found this year that business was the only trusted institution around the world, and as both Edelman and JUST Capital have found in their polling, majorities expect CEOs to respond to such issues writ large.

But, as the client explained to Heath, they ultimately decided to say nothing. “One, the company didn’t have a big reason to take a stand on it,” Heath told us. “And two, their workforce is politically polarized. It’s about 50-50. And so they knew that if they took a stance on this, which wasn’t totally material to their business, they would then alienate half of their employee base, perhaps. That’s not worth it.” The client did, however, decide to continue sharing data and updates on its sustainable supply chain initiatives because while they recognized the polarity of climate politics, sustainability was crucial to their company’s success, and they wanted their stakeholders to understand this.

For Heath, this was a healthy and wise approach to dealing with a term that’s been popular with the Davos set the past few months – ”greenhushing.” Related to its cousin “greenwashing,” which has long referred to the practice of using the guise of sustainability and “going green” as a marketing ploy and not actual policy affecting the practitioner’s business, it refers to the approach of staying mum publicly when it comes to any sustainability initiatives for fear of being labeled “woke” on the right and disingenuous on the left. 

Regardless of whether “greenhushing” as a term is fleeting or here to stay, it refers to a problem that’s been front of mind for Heath because of how often it’s come up lately. A report from the climate NGO South Pole last fall found that among 1,200 global companies, “one in four businesses do not plan to talk about their science-aligned climate targets.” And, as Heath explained, in the same way that greenwashing came to casually be used to represent companies using deceptive practices for social issues in addition to environmental ones, greenhushing has applied to anything executives believe may be tied to the attack on what has been painted with a broad brush as ESG (environmental, social, governance).

Heath told JUST that he and Edelman are trying to prevent companies from giving into the temptation to drop all positioning that became the norm over the past few years, while also recognizing that this moment is the perfect time to bring focus to messaging that, in many instances, probably became too far-reaching for many companies. The most effective path, he said, is somewhere in the middle. “I think greenhushing can force a course correction in the space.”

He offered an alternative approach that he’s based on his many conversations with Edelman’s clients across American corporations.

Listen to your stakeholders and act accordingly

JUST identifies five stakeholders – workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders. And while we ask the public how they prioritize them, we recognize that the stakeholder model (which Edelman aligns itself with, along with the Business Roundtable coalition of CEOs) means that all are linked; when, for example, a company is investing in its workforce or expanding sustainability policies, they should be in service to all other stakeholders, including investors.

Heath recognized that seeing where stakeholders stand on any given issue is difficult, and he also acknowledged the nuance that, for large public corporations especially, politicians are also stakeholders. For example, 17 states now have “anti-ESG” laws enacted or being considered, barring investments in companies they have deemed working for progressive political ideals at the cost of profits, and as we have seen repeatedly, this can lead to financial and PR disasters for companies like, famously, Disney in Florida. And that’s just the U.S.

But Heath also pointed out that in the same way JUST has found many stakeholder issues to be very popular among Americans, majorities around the world are reaching the same conclusions. “People are expecting business to take on climate, economic inequality, skills training, etc. That may be different in North Dakota versus Texas versus France versus Bangladesh – but broadly,” he said. “Not everyone can do everything, but everyone must do something – what’s right for you.”

Share why your actions are creating value – and stay focused on those issues

In 2020, a year marked by both the worst days of the COVID pandemic and the most passionate days of a racial equity movement, companies began scrambling to embed themselves in the zeitgeist, with mixed results.

“The last few years, companies saw that people wanted companies to act more on impact,” Heath said. “And so they jumped into these opportunities to communicate and engage audiences on impact without doing the hard work to build internally the policies, programs, and partnerships that they needed to actually stand up that impact. They wanted to rush to communication without actually building the work.”

In other words, customers and other stakeholders can see right through what boils down to marketing detached from either progress on the issue, or a policy that is wildly unrelated to a company’s purpose. And that’s how companies can alienate stakeholders regardless of their political ideology.

So actual work to purpose is critical before any posturing. But if you take the greenhushing route (again, using this in the casual application for environmental and social issues alike), “nobody will know about it, and you’ll lose out on trust. If you communicate without the action, then you’re rightfully at risk of being called out for greenwashing. And so the challenge is to a place where business is communicating commensurate with the action.”

Regularly and transparently communicate updates on progress

Heath guides his clients through the stakeholders model when guiding them. What is good for their people? What is good for their supply chain? And how does that build multi-stakeholder value? And as you do that, rather than screaming from the mountaintops, ‘We are an ESG leader,’ it’s more about – and I think you’re starting to see this – it’s let’s talk about where we’re good, where we’re making progress, and be transparent about that work.”

He told us about another recent client discussion, in which this business leader explained the challenges their organization was facing around a project. The progress wasn’t ideal, and they were telling Heath that their business probably wasn’t going to release an update on where the project stands. That’s not the feedback Heath wants to hear!

“It’s about progress and not perfection,” he said. Edelman is especially focused on its corporate trust-building work, and has found that transparency – even around failures and setbacks – is better than ignoring problems for building trust among stakeholders. And there’s an added brand positioning benefit that comes with it.

“That requires a little bit more openness, and some companies are not willing to share their learnings or their failures, but others can learn from it,” Heath said. “You move forward and you move the space forward. You have a chance to actually lead.”

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