Ideas and insights > Sustainability storytelling: Finding the sweet spot between greenwashing and greenhushing.

Sustainability storytelling: Finding the sweet spot between greenwashing and greenhushing.

Our thought leader:

Martha Marchesi
Martha Marchesi

It’s not easy being green these days. 

Sustainability has become a business imperative in just about every industry—and so is talking about it to increasingly savvy (and skeptical!) customers and stakeholders. Whether your company is an environmental trailblazer or an absolute beginner, you need to tell an authentic story that shares where you are today and where you’re headed on your sustainability journey.

That’s a tall order for any brand. And many struggle to find the right balance between overstating and understating their efforts.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s greenwashing, a term that describes making inflated claims of sustainable practices. On the other is greenhushing: keeping tight-lipped about environmental efforts for fear of being perceived by customers as exaggerating—or shunned by investors who believe reducing environmental impact means diminishing returns.

The key is finding the sweet spot between the two, so you can tell a thoughtful sustainability story that resonates authentically with customers and stakeholders alike. 

Let’s explore ways to address four realities of today’s sustainability landscape that will help you find the right balance between saying too much and not saying enough.

Reality #1: Customers care about sustainability—and want to know what you’re doing about it.

Demand for sustainable products continues to grow, with 73% of people surveyed globally saying they would likely change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment​​. Sustainable businesses can also command higher product prices, highlighting the market opportunity for transparent sustainability efforts​​.

An increasing number of consumers and B2B buyers want companies to embrace sustainability across their operations. According to a Deloitte survey, 32% of consumers claim that they would have more trust in brands that have a transparent, accountable, and socially and environmentally responsible supply chain.

Research also reveals that 62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on issues like sustainability, and three-quarters of consumers say they’re more likely to trust companies that back up their sustainability claims with publicly shared data.

The takeaway: With sustainability in all its forms top of mind for so many, companies no longer have the option of dodging the sustainability conversation. They need to communicate their commitment to a healthier planet with a compelling, fact-based sustainability story—avoiding marketing fluff and vague or overly broad declarations.

Reality #2: Greenwashing is risky business.

Corporate greenwashing is defined by ClientEarth as the use of “advertising and public messaging to appear more climate friendly and environmentally sustainable than [a company] really is.” It’s often used to “distract consumers from the fact that their business model and activities actually do a lot of environmental harm and damage.”

It’s clearly a widespread issue. According to a Harris poll by Google Cloud, 68% of U.S. executives admit to greenwashing in their companies. And a 2020 study by the European Commission found that 42% of company green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive.

One of the most famous examples of greenwashing is 2015’s Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the German automaker was accused of misleading consumers by selling diesel cars with up to 40 times more emissions than advertised. The US Environmental Protection Agency found that the car giant modified its software to activate emissions controls only during laboratory testing—leading to millions of vehicle recalls, significant reputational damage, and billions of dollars in fines.

Major brands including Coca-Cola and Nestlé have also been accused of misleading the public about their products’ recyclability, and fast fashion brand H&M has been criticized for falsely claiming its “conscious” clothing line was made from sustainably sourced materials. Instances like these can alienate customers, with 54% of consumers saying they would stop buying from a brand if they discovered it was greenwashing.

The takeaway: Greenwashing can lead to a host of adverse business effects, including diminished brand loyalty, lawsuits, and fines. Honesty should be the only policy when it comes to your sustainability story.

Reality #3: Greenhushing is not the answer.

Partly in response to the negative consequences of greenwashing, some companies are avoiding telling a sustainability story at all—or downplaying their environmental goals and progress—to avoid investor scrutiny, regulatory risk, and customer backlash.

For example, Anheuser-Busch stopped running ads touting its emissions goals, and the number of ESG-related statements from large financial sector companies dropped 20% in Q3 2024.

And today, almost a quarter of climate-leading private companies are keeping quiet about their sustainability achievements, according to a survey by climate consultancy South Pole.

The takeaway: Paradoxically, the greenhushing trend is on the rise at a time when consumer demand for transparency and accountability is higher than ever. Companies that engage in it are missing out on opportunities to strengthen brand trust and boost brand loyalty.

Reality #4: It’s critical to find the sweet spot between greenwashing and greenhushing in your sustainability storytelling.

Focus on these tactics to find the authentic middle ground in your sustainability communications:

  • Be specific about your goals. Use clear and quantifiable metrics when setting and communicating your sustainability goals. For example, Adidas shared its commitment to use 100% recycled polyester in all products by 2024, and IKEA outlined its plan to become climate positive by 2030. This measurable approach is considerably more effective than vague claims such as a company’s plans to be more “environmentally friendly.”
  • Build your credibility. By partnering with a non-governmental organization (NGO) or respected sustainability leader, you can increase your brand’s trustworthiness in customers’ and investors’ eyes. Also consider obtaining a third-party accreditation; for example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is widely recognized and trusted by consumers seeking sustainable products.
  • Report your progress transparently. A whopping 90% of S&P 500 companies publish sustainability reports to communicate their goals, progress, and challenges. For example, Unilever’s annual sustainability report successfully outlines both their sustainability wins as well as areas for improvement. Make sure your reporting doesn’t paint a rosier picture than your real-world data and actions can support.
  • Share your journey. Many brands are just starting to get their arms around sustainability—and that’s okay. If you’re clear in your intentions, share realistic (but meaningful) goals, and are actively working to make progress, many customers will appreciate your transparency and cheer on your efforts.

The takeaway: It can be tough for companies to find the sweet spot between greenwashing and greenhushing. But by focusing on the right combination of transparency, accountability, and trust, you’ll be better positioned to tell a more powerful, balanced—and above all, authentic—sustainability story.

We can help you create and tell your sustainability story in ways that connect with the people who matter most to your business. Get in touch and let’s talk.

Related articles.

5 strategies to build a strong sustainability brand.

Social Good Storytelling

5 strategies to build a strong sustainability brand.

4 ways to maximize the value of your ESG report.

Social Good Storytelling

4 ways to maximize the value of your ESG report.

Getting it done right: social good storytelling.

Social Good Storytelling

Getting it done right: social good storytelling.

Let’s chat.

Hi, my name is
I would like to chat with JK about
You can reach me at this email address