Hush! Moving past ‘greenwashing’ through effective use of data

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett January 23, 2023
Keeping quiet over climate strategies is the latest obstacle to organizational climate action.


We’re all talking about sustainability and climate change strategies, aren’t we? Well, up to a point, but there’s a danger of some organizations choosing to keep quiet, a phenomenon dubbed as ‘green hushing’ at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos last week.

Helena Gualinga, Co-Founder, Indigenous Youth Collective of Amazon Defenders, said one specific area where data and technology could help indigenous communities is tracking and reporting human rights violations. Across Ecuador and the Amazon, communities are facing a multitude of threats: deforestation, mining, oil and hydro-electric power stations, among others. 

Human rights violations are frequent, according to Gualinga, who cited a recent incident involving a friend being threatened face-to-face and with some brutal language by asenior executive in a mining company. When her group approached the company, they were simply pointed to a link on its website to make a report, with no further information on how it might be dealt with or follow-up action.

What Gualinga would instead like to see is a way to track back to the investors funding these companies to share these incidents and any violations. Currently, there is not much transparency when you delve down into the activities of companies in the Amazon region. This makes it difficult to check what is actually happening on the ground and can lead to organizations having to pull out from projects where human rights violations have occurred. Gualinga said:

Why don't you create the tool for indigenous people, for people on the ground to track back to you and let you guys know, not with some random link on a website, but an entire mechanism making sure that we can track back every single step back to you?

Involving local communities in restoration and other environmental projects at the initial stages and allowing them to take the lead is something else that Gualinga called for. It also gives them the best chance of success, she argued: 

The most efficient way of conserving and protecting ecosystems, bodies of water and forests is giving indigenous people rights and making sure that they’re guaranteed. Data shows the most preserved places in the world are under indigenous custodianship. 

We talk about indigenous inclusion and indigenous people being consulted, but it doesn't work like that in our communities. We have our own quite developed structures of governance. That needs to be taken into account when these projects are wanting to collaborate with indigenous people, making sure indigenous people are actually at the center of decision making, not being consulted after the decisions have already been made.”

Direct comms

Having direct communication channels between investors and local communities is a potential means of avoiding green hushing, as it could make it easier and quicker for organizations acting in good faith to avoid or cut ties with unethical operators. 

This is a situation Salesforce has found itself in in the past, Suzanne DiBianca, the firm’s Chief Impact Officer, noted. Salesforce had pulled out of a project back in 2020 due to a lack of verified data. 

DiBianca pointed to a segment by John Oliver on carbon markets and offsetting, in which he called out people for investing in projects that were not always as ethical as they seemed. This has scared a lot of corporates around these types of schemes and is another cause of greenhushing. But keeping quiet on climate action makes the overall situation worse. DiBianca referred to a recent conversation with Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group:

She said, ‘When corporations don't talk, we can't do our jobs. We don't know where to focus our efforts. We can't properly lobby in partnership with corporations. So it really hinders us from the work we have to do.’

DiBianca’s mantra in this area is, don't let perfect be the enemy of good:

We have got to go fast and as much as we can, we've got tocontinue to bring transparency to the effort.

For corporates that have been scared off carbon markets and want to avoid bad publicity, Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO at GIB Asset Management, Gulf International Bank (UK), advised there's safety in numbers:

Data has slightly failed this generation in some senses, which is why a lot of people hopped on various bandwagons, and companies were very quick to sign up to certifications of all sorts. If you can perhaps marshal a group of people who've gone through similar experiences to share learnings, that's a really great place to start. Knowledge can help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Garrett-Cox pointed to a trend across Europe where a number of investment funds set up to support nature-based solutions and address climate change were being called out for not doing what they claimed. This has led to changes in the market, she said: 

In the last quarter of 2022, funds that were still doing what they said they were doing attracted new money, and everybody else saw money run out the door because people suddenly realized that the emperor had no clothes.

Garrett-Cox, who also chairs environmental reporting non-profit CDP, said that while greenwashing has many faces, one of them hides behind a veil of simplicity. Initially, people were very quick to report on those things that were easy to do, she explained:

As an investment company, when you then go and scratch below the surface, you found that quite a lot of what they're doing wasn't substantiated. Hence why certain corporates are going back under the radar with this greenhushing idea, which isn't the answer at all.

Mandatory reporting will become more important here, as continuing on a voluntary basis and hoping you don’t get found out isn’t enough to ensure only worthwhile and valid projects get funded. Garrett-Cox added:

Investors will look to the data because the theory of change that CDP believes in is disclosure drives insight, and insight drives action, and action is what investors want to see on the ground.

In the end, the integrity and authenticity of the data is what will prevent greenwashing and greenhushing. Garrett-Coxsaid:

The responsibility of the data providers is to make sure that, for investors parting with money, that data is truly authentic and stands the test of scrutiny.

Image credit - Pixabay

Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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