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‘Greenhushing’ Diminishing Returns for 58% of US’s 100 Biggest Companies

New report asserts that businesses that aren't transparent on their ESG progress, for fear of greenwashing, are missing opportunities for investment and gaining credibility with consumers.

New research finds that almost six in ten (58 percent) of the US’s 100 largest public and private companies are responding to greenwashing concerns by keeping quiet on genuine ESG progress.

With global ESG assets surpassing $30 trillion in 2022, and Bloomberg reporting 85 percent of investors believe ESG assets lead to better returns — an assertion also supported by recent studies by Kroll and Kyushu University — companies that remain quiet on their sustainability progress may be missing out on opportunities for potential investment and connecting with consumers.

This finding was also echoed by Brand Finance’s latest Sustainability Perceptions Index — which found that the world’s biggest brands are missing out on billions of dollars of potential value by failing to properly communicate their sustainability achievements and progress.

The Transparency Index 2024 — published by data-insights company Connected Impact and data-science consultancy Ringer Sciences — reviewed over 600,000 external communications from 200 companies to identify the “transparency gaps” between what businesses communicate on social media about ESG topics and what they factually disclose about their targets and performance in annual reports, websites and other corporate documents.

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The findings reveal that only 2 percent of US companies “over-promoted” — or greenwashed — their ESG progress, with 58 percent taking the opposite route and “under-promoting” and -disclosing more factual data on ESG. In a climate of increasing regulatory and consumer scrutiny, where mistakes can result in fines and reputational damage, companies seem to be hesitant to promote their legitimate sustainability-related credentials due to fears of greenwashing accusations. This puts them at risk of “greenhushing” — when organizations choose not to publicize details of their environmental and social targets, or their plan to reach their targets, to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing.

“Businesses are under increasing pressure to avoid greenwashing — with increasing regulations and potential fines for those who misrepresent their legitimate ESG efforts,” said Connected Impact CEO Dr. Lucy Walton. “But businesses must also take action to avoid ‘greenhushing’. Our data reveal that businesses are more likely to under-promote than over-promote their ESG initiatives. This cautious approach can deter investment and undermine credibility.”

Only four in ten (40 percent) of companies offered a “balanced” picture, with a minimal transparency gap — which the report suggests makes companies more trustworthy than their peers.

Methodology

The Transparency Index 2024 reviewed over 600,000 organic LinkedIn and Twitter (X) posts as a proxy for external communications from the FTSE 100 and the 100 largest public and private US companies using publicly available revenue data.

Connected Impact’s patent-pending methodologies were then used to analyze sampled data. Transparency was calculated by quantifying the balance and alignment between communications and disclosures. A transparency gap is defined as the quantified difference between a company’s factual disclosures on a particular topic and the company’s commentary or communication on the same topic. Transparent communication proportionately aligns the quantity and quality of qualitative content on a topic, with detailed and evidenced quantitative disclosure on the same topic.

The report examined emissions, ethics, diversity and inclusion topics to represent E, S and G criteria. Emission disclosures had the largest gap — with 67 percent of companies disclosing more on emissions than they communicated — while governance had the smallest gap, with 40 percent of companies having a gap between their ethics discloses and communications.

“ESG transparency is currently a missed opportunity for the top 200 businesses in the UK and US,” Walton added. “We know most consumers favor responsible brands and transparent businesses. We know a well-governed, transparent business attracts more investment and top talent. This report equips businesses to identify — and close — transparency gaps; so we can all make better decisions about where to invest our money, time and attention.”

Fear not

Along with the rise in scrutiny and pressure on companies to increase transparency around their social and environmental performance, a growing number of tools and resources have emerged to help them meet the moment — including AI-based platforms such as Greenifs and lower-fi options such as Creatives for Climate’s new Anti-Greenwash Guide for ad and communications agencies.

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