by Grace Cusack, Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern at G&A Institute
In an age where information is easily accessible and corporate transparency is in demand, companies are facing growing scrutiny  from consumers, investors, and activists when it comes to sustainability. G&A’s 2022 Sustainability Reporting in Focus Report  showed that Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting is at an all-time high, with more and more companies deciding to report each year. However, it is challenging to publish a sustainability report that will meet the expectations of every stakeholder. This leads businesses to an ESG catch-22. Report on every environmental initiative and face allegations of greenwashing? Or “mute” your environmental reporting to avoid such allegations and risk a loss in your investments in sustainability initiatives? Either way, this landscape of extremes doesn’t benefit consumers or corporations.
So how does a company navigate this seemingly lose-lose situation?
Greenmuting vs Greenwashing
First, we must understand the extremes on both sides.
Merriam-Webster defines  greenwashing as the intentional practice of making a product or service appear more environmentally friendly than it is. The term greenmuting, on the other hand, was first coined in a 2007 blog post  by McDonald’s former VP of Sustainability Bob Langert, to mean the reluctance to share environmental efforts for fear of being accused of greenwashing.
In each case, presenting consumers and investors with limited or skewed information impedes their ability to make educated choices about the products and services they use.
Let’s Talk About Talking
As we collectively work to mend our relationship with the planet, shutting down and hiding is not the answer. Greenmuting might seem like a good short-term solution to stay out of the hot seat, but it presents the risk of hindering actual ESG progress by stifling the conversation surrounding corporate responsibility. Yet, it is difficult to let go of the fear of being called a dreaded greenwasher.
However, effective sustainability communication  has been found to be beneficial for companies and consumers. Candid communication allows consumers to make informed decisions and shape their ideas of a brand’s reputation. For companies, this communication can engage employees with common goals, and develop a more trustworthy relationship with consumers. More and more, people are searching for companies they can trust and feel good about buying or using their products. According to analysis  by The Economist Intelligence Unit, there has been a 71% increase in searches relating to sustainable goods. To capitalize on this market, each company must find the best way to communicate its sustainability initiatives successfully.
One step towards effective communication is to share sustainability information on multiple platforms. Using various types of communication including sustainability reports, corporate websites, and social media can serve and reach different audiences, while aligning on branding, communication strategy, and message.
Language is also an important consideration. It is necessary to use clear and concise language that is easily understandable for all audiences. In their article  on effective sustainability communication, The World Economic Forum suggests that using simple language that consumers can relate to can help avoid misinformation. For example, turning carbon emissions into miles driven by a car can help quantify an abstract idea into something relatable.
In their article  on how to avoid greenwashing, The National Retail Federation emphasizes the importance of making specific and straightforward claims in sustainability communications, as well as providing evidence to back them up. This is why reporting specific metrics and initiatives that can be confirmed by third-party verification or documentation is essential.
The best way forward is to keep communication clear, accurate, concise, and verifiable.
Every company’s sustainability journey is different, and nobody’s perfect. Ultimately, it’s important to be straightforward with stakeholders when talking about sustainability initiatives, even if that means admitting that certain initiatives did not pan out as expected. Now is not the time to hide or exaggerate what your company is doing. Let’s talk about it honestly! You might even be inspired by what other companies in your industry are doing. But we will never know if we do not open the door to candid communication.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grace Cusack, G&A Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern
Grace Cusack is a recent graduate of Appalachian State University with a B.A. in Sustainable Development with a concentration in Environmental Studies and a minor in Sustainable Business. With this degree, Grace developed the tools to examine the most urgent environmental, economic, and social issues and visualize creative solutions to these challenges. Grace is interested in using this knowledge to support businesses to create a more sustainable and equitable future.
Grace got her start in sustainability working at the Office of Sustainability at Appalachian State University as a Zero Waste Ambassador. In this position, she saw how small creative changes could make an impact on the amount of waste produced by a large institution. She was also a Social and Philanthropy chair on the board of the Sustainable Development Student Alliance Club where she was able to spread her passion for preserving the beautiful outdoors to other students and introduce the concept and community surrounding sustainability.