How to avoid greenhushing: a guide to politically-smart sustainability messages


For those following ESG and sustainability in business and investing, “greenhushing” is the new buzzword. It refers to companies’ refusal to discuss their environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability information. Fear is driving this trend: fear of a backlash from shareholders or political opponents who believe ESG undermines returns; and fear of litigation by shareholders or activists who believe more should be done to improve the ESG record. Greenhushing is most pronounced in the USA, where there is overt party political division on ESG and sustainability issues, particularly as they relate to climate change and to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).


Understandably, companies want to remain out of the political fray, especially in an election year. However, there are downsides to this caution too. It can be a lost opportunity to convey to stakeholders how well companies are doing to mitigate risks to their returns or to have a beneficial impact on stakeholders. It can also be a lost opportunity to boost transparency, while regulators and investors around the world increasingly demand it on climate- and sustainability-related issues.

Politically-smart sustainability messages: An alternative to greenhushing
ESG Reporting: How Companies Measure and Communicate Their Impact

ESG and sustainability present some undeniably important opportunities to businesses and investing, but this path is fraught with political complexities. So the success of efforts to mitigate ESG risks and to protect the environment hinges on a nuanced understanding of the political landscape, at least where there is strong opposition to ESG and sustainability. This is where the concept of politically smart sustainability messages comes in.



What is politically-smart sustainability?


Politically smart sustainability goes beyond simply identifying the “right” technical solutions. It entails understanding the power dynamics, incentives, and motivations of various stakeholders involved, including shareholders, regulators and potential spoilers. To achieve long-term support, ESG and sustainability initiatives must align with economic and political realities, build strategic alliances, align the interests of businesses and their investors, and limit the risks of spoilers.



Strategic alternatives to greenhushing


  1. Framing is Crucial: The way ESG and sustainability issues are presented significantly influences public and shareholder support. Frame your messages to resonate with the values and priorities of your stakeholders, such as your investors, employees or customers. Can you link ESG or sustainability efforts to economic gains, such as lower volatility, long-term returns or job creation, rather than framing these solely as a moral or conceptual imperative?


  1. Be specific: What ESG and sustainability issues matter most to your business? ESG and sustainability are easy to attack politically because they can mean almost anything. People can also project their worst fears onto poorly defined concepts. Use language that is as specific as possible about your businesses goals, risks, activities and sucesses. Spoilers will have a hard time trying to tell you how to run your business when you are specific and factual.


  1. Finding Common Ground: Sustainability can often become polarizing. Look for shared goals with potential opponents. For example, a community might initially be skeptical of renewable energy investment, but focusing on the benefits of job creation and local economic diversification builds bridges.


  1. Build Diverse Coalitions: Collaborate with similar businesses, investor and employee groups, community groups, faith-based organizations, and individuals across the political spectrum where you have common interests and goals. Broad coalitions wield greater influence and demonstrate widespread support that is harder for spoilers to attack.


  1. Timing is Everything: Take advantage of communications opportunities. Is there a financial opportunity that highlights, say, the benefits of investing in the energy transition? Has a recent event heightened public awareness of the benefits for companies and investors of managing ESG risks? Seize these moments to explain your specific agenda to your stakeholders.


  1. Persistence and Adaptability: Political landscapes, even polarized ones, eventually shift. Be prepared to reframe arguments and build new partnerships in response to changes. Decide what is in your organization’s interests and be prepared to explain and defend it for the long-term. Just don’t make your progress a secret. You’ll never get the credit you deserve, whereas unproductive spoilers will have improved their social media profile.


Politically-smart sustainability and ESG offers the best hope for long-term success. While the pure science of environmentalism is clear, and much has also been learned about the benefits of managing material ESG risks to business, ignoring the political context can mean spinning your wheels, and greenhushing can be short-sighted for your interests. By understanding power structures, forging alliances, being specific and choosing timing well, we can increase the chances of successfully learning how to integrate ESG risk and sustainability into business models.



What can you do?


Greenhushing will only get you so far, so how can you be more politically smart in how you discuss the ESG issues in your business? Consider:


  • Engaging with local policymakers;
  • Meeting organizations that excel in coalition-building;
  • Educating yourself about the intersection of politics, economics and business where you are.

You can also read our guide on where to start with ESG disclosures and our overview of global ESG and sustainability regulations for more ideas on communicating these issues for your business. If you do any business in the European Union, be sure to also read our explanation of Europe’s double materiality standards for where to start in the EU.



Tags :
ESG communications,ESG disclosures
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