Greenwashing fears: Businesses wary of ‘over-promoting’ sustainability progress

A review of more than 600,000 corporate communications from the UK’s FTSE100 plus 100 large firms in the US has revealed that most are not making claims in consumer-facing marketing that are not backed up by data.

Just 5% of the environmental claims made by the firms were of this nature, which is classed as “over-promotion” by the researchers at Connected Impact and Ringer Sciences.

The proportion is even lower – less than 1% – for claims related to the companies’ social impact and approaches to governance.

This indicates that businesses are keen to avoid accusations of greenwashing, as consumers become more clued-up and as potential repercussions mount.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority is, for example, reviewing environmental claims made by fashion brands and consumer goods firms for alignment with its green claims code. The code applies existing consumer law through the lens of green claims, covering widespread issues such as

The code is not legally binding, but has provided companies with tools to vet their claims. It has also empowered individuals and groups to request the Advertising Standards Authority for rulings that claims be banned or altered.

Just this week, the ASA ordered Luton Airport to pull an out-of-home advertising campaign stating that its expansion would “be stopped in its tracks” if it was environmentally harmful. The ASA ruled that Luton Airport risked confusing readers by failing to clearly explain the project’s ‘environmental limits’.

The ASA has also today (10 July) ordered Wessex Water to stop airing a TV campaign on its plans to reduce storm overflows which release sewage into the environment.

The EU is going one step further than the UK and implementing a directive banning misleading, vague and/or overstated green claims in all consumer-facing communications. This should take effect in 2026.

Frameworks such as these are far less developed in the US, but US-based firms appear to be taking notice of global trends and preparing to comply in their international markets.

The era of greenhushing

The ‘Corporate Transparency Index’ from Connected Impact and Ringer Sciences  also looked at potential instances of businesses ‘greenhushing’ – providing robust data on their sustainability progress in mandatory reports, then not promoting this in more public-facing communications.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of the environmental progress points reported by the FTSE100 were not promoted. The proportion was even higher in the US (67%). This trend is called ‘under-promotion’.

It has also been referred to as greenhushing.

Connected Impact’s chief executive Dr Lucy Walton said that, by being “cautious”, businesses may well navigate “mounting pressure to avoid greenwashing” and the related regulatory risks.

But they could also deter ESG-minded investors and customers. Moreover, the sharing of successful projects can empower other organisations to implement their own – without examples to follow, some businesses find it challenging to build a case to act.

Dr Walton said: “ESG Transparency is currently a missed opportunity for the top 200 businesses in the UK and US. We know most consumers favour responsible brands and transparent businesses. We know a well-governed transparent business attracts more investment and top talent.”

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