Claims of greenwashing have become increasingly widespread as consumer environmental consciousness grows. Microsoft recently came under the microscope for paying Running Tide to sequester 12,000 into ocean algae, a move which environmentalists suggest could create problems for future generations. Google was called out by Reuters in late 2022 for selling search ads in which oil giants downplayed their role in climate change - despite a previous pledge to not place ads that counter the consensus on climate change.
At the other end of the scale, many large companies are choosing not to publicize details of their sustainability targets, in a phenomenon known as “green-hushing”. A recent study carried out by climate consultancy South Pole found that approximately one-quarter of 1200 private companies surveyed “will not be publicizing their sustainability achievements and milestones beyond the bare minimum”.
This is particularly interesting because the companies targeted were “considered global climate leaders”.
Whilst green-hushing may be laudable in some respects – walking the talk rather than just talking it – the practice is not without its downsides. For one thing, publicizing projects that have gone well passes on good ideas. For another, large companies that break ground on innovative solutions can open opportunities for smaller players.
A fireside chat between one of my Interact colleges and a representative from AWS in March was an excellent illustration of this. AWS is investing in startups that create low-carbon concrete (20 percent reduction in GHG emissions) and green steel.
An organization the size of AWS may not be able to report all the initiatives it trials, but there are other reasons to be wary of oversharing too soon. The company could be accused of deflection from energy reporting. Or there may be challenges with large-scale rollout that invite criticism of the kind associated with low-carbon aviation fuel. However, with so much of sustainability being a work in progress, there is huge value in being transparent on what is working now, what is under development, and what road bumps companies hit along the way to widespread adoption.
Balancing fluff and rigor
Sustainability is moving from a marketing-related story-telling activity to something that is more stringent and standardized. This much is obvious from the legislation (for example, the EU Code of Conduct is now a set of requirements ) and from the sustainability reports now filled with carbon footprint pie-charts, waste tables, and materials flows. ISO has gone way beyond 14001 for Environmental Management. It now has the Data Centre specific ISO 30134 that covers materials efficiency and a raft of circular economy standards (starting with ISO 59010) under development. With a solid focus on data and evidence, companies are understandably nervous about “getting things wrong” by choosing to highlight smaller stories in their communications.
However, storytelling has huge value in driving new concepts, sharing knowledge, and empowering behavior change. It definitely has a place in sustainability best practice as long as it is guided by transparency and has an appreciation of where it fits into the bigger picture.
Risks and opportunities
I spend a significant part of my time delivering IEMA-certified Sustainability training. One of the first topics delivered is how to assess environmental risks and opportunities for individual organizations. It requires a broad understanding of possible impacts – land use change, biodiversity, energy, water usage, pollution – and an ability to weight the importance of these in specific cases. A chemical manufacturer, for example, will have a very different set of risks and opportunities than a high school.
We already have clear guidance on some of the impacts for enterprise data centers: energy efficiency; use of carbon-free energy; water conservation; circular economy approaches to IT and circular approaches to heat reuse. There is a growing appreciation of the importance of supply chain carbon that builds into Net Zero plans. Any company engaged in construction projects is aware that steel and cement are materials that are extremely carbon-intensive to produce.
Looking ahead, environmental sustainability is only one part of sustainability risk that companies will have to report on. Much has been made of the EU Taxonomy and its relationship with the EU Code of Conduct. Waiting in the wings is the Corporate Social Reporting Directive (CSRD), which will broaden reporting to supply chain verification and social impacts. Coming up behind is the thinking of the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), which looks at broader sustainability risks like biodiversity.
Companies that go further than current best practice in addressing relevant impacts (or develop ways of addressing them that also have other benefits) should be confident about describing this. Doing so furthers discussion and shares ideas. Even if their solutions are not perfect, they help chart a pathway to something that may be in the future.
Greenwashing is disinformation designed to distract the public from the environmental impacts companies do not address. Green-hushing is a failure to tell people about the benefits you bring above and beyond the established and the obvious. Both can be avoided by thinking about what is important to your organization and how what you are doing helps.