What is greenhushing? How to spot the sophisticated greenwashing tactics being used in 2023

Greenhushing is a sophisticated form of greenwashing that's easy to overlook.
Greenhushing is a sophisticated form of greenwashing that's easy to overlook. Copyright Canva
By Angela Symons
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Greenhushing, greenshifting, greencrowding: Greenwashing is getting harder to spot. Here are the latest tactics to watch out for.

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You’re probably well aware of greenwashing - when companies make misleading claims about their environmental credentials.

But as the public wises up to it, the practice is growing increasingly sophisticated.

Corporations from Ryanair to Shell have been called out in recent months for making false or unsubstantiated claims about their environmental impact.

A new EU law against misleading or unverified green claims aims to address the problem and protect consumers. But marketing companies are constantly finding new ways to pull the wool over our eyes.

And new strategies require new vocabulary so we can call them out.

From greenshifting to greenhushing, non-profit financial think tank Planet Tracker has identified six insidious types of greenwashing to look out for. Here’s what they are and how to spot them, with real world examples.

6. What is greencrowding and who's really behind the Alliance to End Plastic Waste?

Greencrowding involves hiding in a group and moving at the speed of the slowest adopter of sustainability policies.

Planet Tracker offers the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) as an example. 65 companies have signed up to the global alliance, whose purported aim is ‘to end plastic waste in the environment and protect the planet’.

But all is not as it seems.

Members range from Big Oil giants like ExxonMobil and Shell to plastic packaging companies such as Sealed Air and household names like PepsiCo. Eight of the top 20 single-use plastic waste makers are part of the AEPW.

The majority of members are also in the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which lobbied to weaken the UN’s global treaty on plastic pollution.

Both the AEPW and ACC focus on plastic recycling and recovery rather than tackling the issue at its source: production. Globally, only around nine per cent of plastic is successfully recycled. And even though AEPW’s recycling targets are negligible in view of the global plastic pollution problem, it is failing to meet its goals.

The alliance’s investment targets are low and average member contributions fell by 56 per cent in its first three years of operation, Planet Tracker reveals.

5. What is greenlighting and how does Toyota use it to look greener than it really is?

Greenlighting, in a greenwashing context, is when a company spotlights a particularly green feature of its operations or products. This tactic aims to draw attention away from environmentally damaging activities being conducted elsewhere.

It is particularly common in the car industry, where manufacturers tout the merits of their EVs, which are often a very small part of their production.

For example, zero emissions vehicles made up just 0.2 per cent of Toyota’s total sales in 2021 - the lowest proportion out of the top 10 car manufacturers worldwide. InfluenceMap, a global database of corporate climate lobbying, ranks the company as the 10th most negative and influential corporation globally.

Yet the company is pushing a ‘Beyond Zero’ sustainability campaign with captions such as ‘The future looks electric.’

Toyota’s website reads: “Zero emissions isn't our destination. It's another step in our electrification journey to overcome barriers and build a better future for all: beyond emissions, beyond restrictions, beyond expectations and beyond barriers.”

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TotalEnergies is also currently facing scrutiny for greenlighting tactics. Environmental groups argue that the oil major’s public advertising of its climate-friendly investments is misleading as they are dwarfed by the amount it invests in oil and gas.

In June 2023, adverts by major oil companies Shell, Repsol and Petronas were banned in the UK for exaggerating their positive environmental impact. In its #PoweringProgress campaign, Shell spotlighted its renewable energy products, giving the false impression that these make up a significant proportion of its output.

4. What is greenshifting and how does BP use it to shame consumers?

Greenshifting is when companies imply that the consumer is at fault and shift the blame on to them, Planet Tracker explains.

An example is BP’s ‘Know your carbon footprint’ campaign.

The oil giant launched a carbon calculator and invited customers to share their pledges for reducing emissions. “The first step to reducing your emissions is to know where you stand,” one tweet reads.

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Within the same year, BP also spent millions on an advertising campaign about its low-carbon energy and cleaner natural gas. In reality, more than 96 per cent of its annual expenditure was still on oil and gas at the time, according to environmental charity ClientEarth.

Emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. In 2018, 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry, says ClientEarth.

Yet fossil fuel companies have consistently shown secret resistance to transitioning to a greener future despite being well aware of the dangers of climate change.

3. What is greenlabelling and how is Persil to blame?

Greenlabelling is a practice where marketers call something green or sustainable, but closer examination reveals this to be misleading.

Sometimes products are promoted in green packaging, with plant symbols or deceptive wording, causing consumers to infer their eco credentials. Other times, unsubstantiated claims are made or inferred on labelling or in adverts.

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An advert for Unilever-owned washing detergent brand Persil was banned last year for doing exactly this.

The brand’s ‘Kinder to our planet’ campaign also rolls in a healthy dose of greenshifting by calling viewers to action. “For real change to happen, we need to roll up our sleeves and get dirty,” the voiceover says over images of children planting trees and collecting plastic from the ocean.

But it was the brand’s own green claims that came under fire. The ad touts a new formulation with plant based stain removers and recycled bottles, concluding, “We only have one planet. It’s time to change for good.”

The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) took action against Persil, saying the brand had failed to substantiate its environmental claims that the new product was more sustainable than its last.

2. What is greenrinsing and how does Coca-Cola use it?

Greenrinsing refers to a company regularly changing its ESG targets before they are achieved. Short for Environmental, Social and Governance, ESG is a set of standards measuring a business's impact on society, the environment, and its transparency and accountability.

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When companies miss, reduce or delay these environmental targets, it raises suspicion as to whether they are genuinely trying to reach them or simply using them as a marketing ploy.

Planet Tracker offers one of the world’s top plastic polluters as an example. Coca-Cola is known for missing and moving its recycling targets - and packing them with caveats.

Between 2020 and 2022, the company dropped its target for using recycled packaging materials from 50 per cent by 2030 to 25 per cent.

In its latest sustainability report, Coca-Cola identifies 47 risks - ranging from product safety and costs to strikes and obesity - that could lead to the unfulfillment of the sustainability targets.

The result? The world’s biggest plastic polluter has barely credible recycling targets.

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1. What is greenhushing and how does HSBC use it to its advantage?

Greenhushing is when organisations deliberately choose to under-report or hide their green or ESG credentials from public view to evade scrutiny.

Greenhushing firms may hide under the guise of being ‘quietly conscientious’ - fighting the good fight without shouting about it. Yet by remaining vague, they may be giving the impression they are greener than they actually are.

Blackrock and HSBC have been accused of this in recent months. The asset management firms downgraded a number of Article 9 funds - exclusively invested in sustainable assets - to an Article 8 category: funds that promote environmental or social factors but do not need to target a sustainable outcome.

HSBC said this was to comply with stricter EU regulatory standards and that it would not change the objectives or policies of the funds. But Planet Tracker says it was potentially taken to avoid investor scrutiny.

There are reasons why genuinely eco-minded companies may choose to under-report their sustainability credentials, however. These include a fear of being asked for ever increasing amounts of data, which puts pressure on resources for smaller companies. Some companies may also be deterred by the regulatory costs for affirming green credentials.

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Other times, companies may wish to test their green credentials over a longer period before announcing their impact. This can shield them from scrutiny, including greenwashing accusations or regulatory fines.

What’s being done to prevent greenwashing tactics?

Regulators and governments are starting to confront the growing issue of greenwashing.

The UK is planning to further regulate the labelling of sustainable investment funds and scrutinise ‘environmental’ labelling on food, drink and toiletries.

A proposal for new EU greenwashing legislation was adopted in March 2023 under the European Green Deal. It aims to prohibit companies from making vague, generic and unsubstantiated environmental claims.

It includes clear criteria on how companies should prove their environmental claims and labels. It also requires these claims and labels to be checked by an independent and accredited verifier, and lays out new rules on environmental labelling.

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“Addressing the problem will require those bodies leading the charge against greenwashing to establish a global equivalence in ESG reporting,” says John Willis, director of research at Planet Tracker, which uses data to promote a financial system that is aligned with a net-zero, nature-positive economy.

Consumers are also taking the lead by calling out companies for their deceptive tactics - and sometimes taking them to court.

Anti-advertising movement Brandalism has taken its protests to the streets, drawing attention to greenwashing by hijacking ads by airlines and car manufacturers.

How can you avoid falling for greenwashing?

Aside from being savvy to the greenwashing tactics companies use, there are various ways to avoid deception.

As a general rule, if a large, multinational company is claiming to be environmentally friendly, scrutinise their claims.

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These companies are in the privileged position of having the money, workforce and influence to be doing much more to stem the impacts of climate change. What they are doing is generally small drops in a very large, and urgent, ocean.

So whenever possible, and it usually is with a little effort, look for small, independent local businesses and buy the same services or products from them. The bonus is that you'll often have a much nicer experience shopping locally and face to face. And you won't have to wait at home for your delivery.

Also check the ethics and credentials of the products you're buying. Trusted eco labels such as FairTrade, Global Organic Textile Standard and EU Ecolabel can only be used on products that have proven their climate-friendly credentials. Equivalent national and regional labels, run by governmental bodies, also exist, such as the Blue Angel in Germany, the Nordic Swan Ecolabel in Nordic countries and the Austrian Ecolabel.

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