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Marketing and Comms
Silencing Sustainability:
Why to Avoid Greenhushing and Who to Trust

As sustainability claims are more widely scrutinized, companies may be tempted to stop talking about their efforts altogether. But the risk of avoiding the topic to protect your brand has much farther-reaching implications than you may think.

Ecolabels in your kitchen

If you walked into your kitchen right now, chances are high that you would find at least one product with a third-party certification label on it. Something with the MSC blue fish label, a Fairtrade label, or the Non-GMO Project Verified label could be in your pantry, your medicine cabinet, your fridge, your freezer or among your pet supplies; and you might be buying it without even realizing it. But hopefully, you are buying it because you value these third-party certifications and know that although the labels are little, their impact is big.

The companies and brands that use these labels are making a bold statement when they choose to include them on their packaging: We are third-party certified — our products and the supply chains that created them have been through a rigorous review, and our claims can be independently verified.

In a world bombarded by labels and all variations of claims, from labeling apples as gluten free to making broad, sweeping, sustainability or responsibility claims, it is increasingly difficult to weed out the credible from the absurd. At the same time, consumers are starting to catch on — truly caring about the where and the how behind the products that they buy, and asking the right questions. They are also more willing to call your bluff. In fact, our 2022 consumer research shows that 69 percent of consumers demand that retailers’ and brands’ claims about sustainability and the environment be clearly labeled and third-party verified.

As consumers get more savvy, product and company sustainability claims are being more widely scrutinized. This has presented the market with two primary options: Make your claims more credible or stop talking about sustainability altogether. Both options have benefits and risks. But the risk of avoiding the topic of sustainability to protect your brand has much farther-reaching implications than you may think.

From greenwashing to greenhushing

As a Sustainable Brands® reader, the perils of greenwashing — exaggerated or deceptive environmental or social claims — are likely familiar. “Greenhushing,” on the other hand, is a relatively new term that refers to companies deliberately keeping quiet about their sustainability goals. Companies may do this because of the fear of being accused of greenwashing or becoming a target for scrutiny around the details of what they are doing.

When companies stop talking about sustainability, it can be contagious. No one wants to be the last person standing, waving the sustainability flag. If enough high-impact companies turn to greenhushing, regardless of whether they are still working on the sustainability or responsibility of their supply chains in the background, it can have a profound impact on environmental and social goals — potentially unwinding decades of progress. Balancing profitability and long-term supply chain assurance with sustainable ecosystems and the ethical treatment of workers is integral for food security, livelihoods, communities, resource management and planetary health. When consumers, companies and policymakers stop hearing about the importance of environmental and social goals, that balance is disrupted and a focus on short-term profit over people and planet could once again become the norm.

Celebrating little labels and the sustainable food movement

Alternatively, we should be focusing our collective efforts on ensuring that claims are more credible and defensible.

That is why the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Non-GMO Project and Fairtrade America are working together to shine the spotlight on our labels. All three organizations are nonprofits driven by their collective mission to change how food is harvested or made in order to benefit land, oceans and people.

Fairtrade has been operating internationally since 1989, MSC’s sustainable fishing standard has been in effect since 1998, and Non-GMO Project has been verifying products since 2010. For the sake of transparency, the organizations publish their standards, data and financials on their websites and provide opportunities for stakeholder input. Brands both large and small showcase this compliance by including the Fairtrade, MSC, or Non-GMO Project labels on their packaging.

There is an immense amount of work that goes behind a third-party label. For MSC, it includes an extensive review of marine science and fisheries best practice, public consultation and testing; and reviewing hundreds of submissions from expert stakeholders to feed into standards updates every five years. As a result, MSC is the only global, wild-capture fisheries-certification program that simultaneously meets best practices set by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling (ISEAL), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Certified fisheries and businesses experience independent surveillance audits and additional points of assurance — including DNA testing and product checks — to uphold the robustness of product claims.

When companies prioritize third-party certifications, they help celebrate measurable impacts and support sustainable and equitable food — such as delivering nearly $2 billion in Fairtrade Premium to farmers and workers, having about 10 percent of all packaged groceries Non-GMO Project Verified, or having 670 fisheries — representing 19 percent of global wild marine catch — engaged in MSC’s sustainable fishing program.

All of these impacts are helping to build a more resilient and equitable food system; the little labels displayed on food packaging represent all of that and more. Third-party labels are only one part of a larger and incredibly important movement — but they can uniquely provide a high level of independently verified assurance. Greenhushing silences this progress; making more credible claims that can be backed up by processes such as third-party assurances and labels can help to keep momentum and continue to drive lasting positive change.