Why do some brands hide their sustainability initiatives?

Beauty news site, Glossy, coined it "secret sustainability," education site Sustainable & Social label it "greenhushing"; whatever it's called, the hiding of sustainability initiatives is rising. For various reasons, brands are choosing to be quieter about their social and environmental sustainability efforts. But, being more secretive or hush about sustainability still has to be balanced with transparency. As brands weigh the pros and cons, they may start to communicate differently with consumers.

The fear of "greenwashing" is real.

Greenwashing is defined as "a corporate marketing strategy that takes advantage of the increased public interest in environmental issues to make false or misleading claims about a company's environmental practices and products" by the Sustainable Fashion Glossary. When sustainability first started becoming an important — and sellable — buzzword in fashion, brands quickly jumped on board, using the term in advertisements to appeal to consumers. What was missing from these marketing campaigns was a lack of evidence and transparency. As a result, consumers, activists, and the media coined the term "greenwashing" to call out brands and hold them accountable. Now, the term has evolved. No longer is it just used against brands that put out misleading advertising, but it is also used to label brands that are not doing enough — like a brand that just has one sustainable collection rather than making all products sustainable. In some cases, "greenwashing" has also been used against brands without proof that greenwashing is actually occurring. Brands that suddenly partake in sustainability initiatives despite a reputation for being unsustainable are frequently met with greenwashing accusations. A recent GBJ article on Gucci's carbon neutrality was met with greenwashing accusations despite adequate evidence being supplied to support Gucci's claim. Brands are starting to think that instead of dealing with consumers who won't believe them, they should keep their sustainability efforts low-key.

Brands could face legal and financial repercussions now.

Beyond upset consumers, brands potentially also face upset stakeholders. As sustainability becomes an important corporate subject, shareholders, board members, and general investors are looking to encourage companies to change their operations from the inside. Companies that misreport their sustainability progress could face financial consequences or even litigation. The Fashion Law recently reported on greater scrutiny regarding a brand's environmental, social, and corporate governance claims. Apparently, the Securities and Exchange Commission is "actively comparing the information companies voluntarily provide with the information disclosed in SEC filings." Legal action against brands is indeed a real concern.

Sustainability is no longer a unique quality for a brand.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for not shouting from the rooftops a brand's sustainability efforts is because it is no longer special. Luxury brands, mid-range brands, outdoor and activewear brands, small brands, and even fast fashion brands are incorporating sustainability initiatives in some way or another. Now, promoting a sustainable collection or initiative can come with more costs than benefits.

Instead of marketing campaigns showcasing sustainability, expect to see it more subtly ingrained.

As brands try to dodge greenwashing accusations and legal repercussions, they may choose to communicate their sustainability efforts differently. "Greenhushing" or "secret sustainability" could be a new reality rather than flashy campaigns about sneakers made from recycled plastic. It is also possible brands will choose to share their sustainability on their websites through dedicated sections or listed under the "product details" tab where materials and sizing information is usually listed. No matter how sustainability information is communicated, it will be necessary to share it with consumers, as transparency remains an integral part of creating a better fashion industry.

Keep Reading:

Green hush: Campaigns against sustainable businesses cause them to go silent, study finds (Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability)

‘Secret Sustainability’: Fashion brands are learning to master initiatives before marketing them (Glossy)

As fashion embraces ESG, there are some critical legal issues at play (The Fashion Law)

Fashion financing doubles down on sustainability (Frame)