You probably already heard about the term Greenwashing especially when it comes to Fashion. But you might not be aware of another term, equally detrimental for fashion companies trying to find their place in sustainability. That term is Greenhushing
To understand what this really means, as well as how dangerous it can be to brands,I talked to sustainability communication expert Mona Jensen. Mona is the founder and CEO of Something Green, a consultancy helping sustainable brands build a clear message and marketing strategy. Mona is one of my favorite people, as well as a key collaborator when providing Ethical Growth services.
Adela : I really wanted to have this chat with you, because I always get frustrated when people jump to conclusions in terms of what is greenwashing. Like with most things in life, sustainability in fashion is more complicated than it seems, and just because a brand is “big”, it doesn’t mean that they are greenwashing. You mentioned the term “greenhushing” to me, and I was totally unaware about it.
What exactly is Greenhushing?
Mona : So,we all know by now what Greenwashing is. It’s trying to make yourself seem greener than you are. Maybe labeling yourself as sustainable even though it’s more or less business as usual. Greenhushing, on the other hand, is keeping your green efforts a secret to the world.
There are a surprising amount of companies who do this, unfortunately. Usually they do it out of good intentions, because they are afraid to be labeled as Greenwashers. They are afraid of receiving negative backlash from the media, from consumers, influencers, etc. So instead, they just decide to go really quiet about the changes they’re making. And you could argue that it’s wonderful that they’re humble and don’t want to brag about their good intentions. But actually this has some negative consequences as well. It can be quite damaging for both the companies themselves, and the industry as a whole
Adidas green faux-pas.
AA: I think something that also plays a role on Greenhushing is a common mistake that we see in marketing very often. You can´t assume that the customer is aware of your progress. This whole conversation started because of a video Adidas posted on Instagram titled “End plastic Waste”. Adidas has been a pioneer in sustainable development, they have been investing in R&D for decades, however the video is quite generic and it would look like greenwashing to anyone not aware of those efforts.
MJ: Yeah, and I think something even worse about that campaign is that they added a lot of really sentimental footage. There’s a baby playing on a beach, and a woman running… It just felt like a cornucopia of corny video clips. iIt just did not work, and it is a shame because Adidas is actually doing a lot of great efforts towards sustainability. So, why are we putting out promotional material like this, that makes them look like greenwashers? Because that was the feeling I had after watching it.
Sustainable development is not sexy.
AA: It is not easy to find that balance, for sure. And this is why I think you can help a lot. The fact is that, when done right, sustainability is not sexy. We are talking about textile engineering. We are talking about water filtration systems. That is not as cool for the consumer as “bamboo is a superfiber”.
MJ: Well, personally, I would disagree with you there. I’m an eco geek so I think it’s really really sexy when you talk about water savings. But it’s clearly not a very common kink.
But here is where sustainable communication comes in. Because you have to take a bird’s eye view of it and translate those efforts into something the customer can understand. For example, if we are talking about water filtration.How many gallons of water are we talking about saving? How many Olympic sized swimming pools? And what does this mean for water quality in total?.
We are all aware at this point of things like water pollution, plastic waste in the ocean etc. You need to link those “unsexy” accomplishments to a problem that the audience is aware of. Something that matters to them. Tell them what is this shoe better than other shoes. It’s not just because it’s an awesome sneaker. It’s also a step (foot pun) in the right direction.
The (secret?) Green Machine from H&M.
AA: And it’s in fact very important for the general public to identify these companies. The ones that are actually spending money on research and development. In my opinion, that is the best way to see which brands really care about sustainable development and which ones are greenwashing. R&D is a long game. You have to spend plenty of time, and resources – and you can’t know whether or not you will get a return on that investment.
However companies I think are failing at communicating these efforts! For example, earlier this year, the H&M group announced that in collaboration with the HKRITA and one of the main suppliers, they had been working since 2016 on a machine to separate cotton and polyester blends. And I just can’t express how important this is.
MJ: Yeah, this is a massive revolution in the textile industry. Basically, most of our clothes are made out of blends, a mix of fibers. And when you have a fabric that is part polyester, part cotton, part wool…you can’t really recycle them properly. You need to tear them apart.
Being able to split the different kinds of fiber means that you actually have the option of reuse those primary fibers. Have them go into the production line again, without losing quality. This is amazing because it gives us a real option of reusing discarded clothing, rather than just upcycling it or going into the second-hand market.
A perfect marriage, a better divorce. Dissolving Cotton/Poly blends.
AA: Discarded clothes and factory waste as well. And Poly/Cotton blend is the ideal blend to start with. On one hand is an extremely common blend. When I was working as a buyer I think most of my products had some Poly/Cotton blend. These two fibers work very well together, they complement each other in terms of comfort, care, and durability.
But on top of that, we also already have pretty advanced recycling processes for both Cotton and Polyester – but these are very different from each other. Cotton is a cellulosic fiber (think paper) so it can be dissolved into a paste and have it go through the Viscose process. Polyester is an artificial fiber so it is basically plastic. It can be dissolved and made into new polyester fibers. The polymer does shorten with each cycle so it can be recycled maybe 2, 3 times max without compromising quality. But….still. It’s a revolutionary achievement, and something they have been investing in for 5 years. And I had no idea about it! Were you aware of it?
MJ: No idea. When you sent that link to me I was like : wait, what? Amazing. YES. More. Now.
It’s such a shame when a company greenhushes. There’s an industry here that you want to change, a culture you want to change. So even if you are just halfway there, even if you just have a plan, you need to communicate it. Even just by saying: We’re working on these new technologies, we replaced 90% of our cotton with organic cotton; You are setting a new bar for the entire industry.
By being honest about your efforts and your journey, you’re raising the bar and you’re also giving your consumers a more solid base to make decisions.
Is there something you do to detect when someone is either greenwashing or greenhushing?
MJ: I have a habit of going directly to the “about” page on a website. If what I find is basically a buzzword bingo with no concrete examples, no numbers, no data…it’s a red flag.
And also, luckily, most brands now have a “sustainability” subpage. Again, here is where I can see whether they are just flattering themselves, or they actually show their plans and their concrete efforts and achievements. If they are not telling you which SDG (sustainable development goals) they are working on, if they are not talking about specific initiatives, then probably they are not that great.
But then again, maybe they are just being shy about it and falling into the Greenhushing trap.
Finding the sweet spot : effective sustainable communication 101.
AA: So, if a brand wants to make sure that they find themselves on that sweet spot – not Greenwashing or Greenhushing but actually being honest about their efforts in a way that can resonate with their public – What’s a good place to start?
MJ: A really good place to start is, again, on your own about page or creating a dedicated sustainability page on your website. Take a step back and look at what you have created, and the plans you have laid down. It can be really easy to go blind to your own sustainability efforts. You see it day after day and you forget the rest of the world is not aware of what you are doing. As you said, most people are seeing you for the first time.
So something that I always tell my clients is to explain their service or product to me as if I am their 80 year old grandmother. When you do this exercise you find yourself highlighting the most important things, and explaining how it is ultimately beneficial even to your grandmother.
AA: God bless grandmas. Clearly sustainable communication is not an easy feat. As we said, many well established brands with huge budgets are getting it wrong! If you are working towards building a brand with sustainability at the core of your essence, you need to be mindful about how you define your message.