Increasing Trend of “Green Hushing” as Companies Conceal Climate Plans from Examination

A new study has highlighted a rising trend known as “green hushing,” wherein companies opt not to publicize specific details about their climate targets, aiming to evade scrutiny and accusations of greenwashing. According to the research, conducted across 12 countries and involving 1,200 companies, a quarter of these companies have chosen not to disclose their science-based net zero emissions targets, which are strategic plans aligned with the Paris Agreement objectives for emissions reduction. The study was conducted by climate consultancy and carbon offsets developer, South Pole.

This development comes despite a significant increase in the proportion of companies adopting science-based targets. The survey revealed that 72% of respondents had adopted such targets, marking a more than threefold increase from the previous year. This surge in target adoption followed the COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow the prior year when companies rushed to showcase their commitment to sustainability. However, this flurry of climate commitments led to concerns that some targets lacked substantiation or were misleading.

In response to these issues, legal actions have been brought forth, particularly targeting “greenwashing” in advertising campaigns by oil companies like TotalEnergies. Furthermore, financial regulators have intensified their oversight of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) labeled investment funds to prevent inadequate supervision.

Michael Wilkins, who heads the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College London, noted the heightened scrutiny surrounding sustainability claims and linked it to the backlash against ESG practices. This combined pressure appears to be unnerving many companies.

Companies are also grappling with the credibility of frameworks used to assess sustainability. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which serves as the authority on corporate climate actions, has faced criticism regarding its governance and potential conflicts of interest. There have been concerns that companies are effectively buying higher scores by paying for accreditation, which could undermine the legitimacy of their commitment to targets.

The SBTi charges companies a fee of $9,500 to evaluate their climate targets. Some companies may indeed be implementing authentic targets but are hesitant to reveal them due to the political landscape surrounding climate change in their respective regions. For instance, in the US, certain states, like Texas, have challenged ESG investing, claiming it harms their fossil fuel-dependent economy.

Nina Seega, a research director at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, mentioned that companies might refrain from publicizing their climate efforts if their region’s prevailing sentiment contradicts the value of sustainability. This could be to avoid backlash from customers or beneficiaries who hold differing views.

Climate advocates have long called for stricter disclosure requirements to encourage competition among companies to enhance their environmental commitments. In contrast, “green hushing” could obstruct efforts to scrutinize targets and potentially discourage businesses from setting more ambitious goals.

Bethan Halls, a sustainability adviser at South Pole, emphasized the importance of transparency in companies’ reporting on their progress. She highlighted that if “green hushing” becomes a prevalent practice, it could hinder efforts to motivate companies with weaker climate commitments.

Despite the cautious approach noted in the study, South Pole’s findings indicate that companies are adopting more net-zero targets than ever, supported by science-based strategies and tighter timelines. Nina Seega sees this as a potential indicator of climate concerns becoming mainstream, reducing the need for companies to loudly tout their efforts.

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