Embracing Transparency and Accountability: Achieving Net Zero without Greenwashing or Greenhushing
Authored By: Rebecca Berg, Policy Associate, The Climate Registry
This is Part 2 of a 2-part series that dives into the importance of embracing transparency and accountability in the race to achieve net zero. This second piece examines how transparency and accountability are essential to achieving net zero without claims of greenwashing or greenhushing.
Net-zero targets have been increasing substantially, but there have also been growing concerns about the credibility of some of these efforts. Without transparent data, stakeholders are unable to hold organizations accountable to their commitments, and claims of greenwashing can easily emerge. The term greenwashing refers to “situations where a company makes misleading claims about their positive environmental impact or the sustainability of their products and services to convince consumers that they are acting on climate change1.” Greenwashing thrives in environments that don’t prioritize accountability or urgent climate action, and can diminish public confidence in the efforts of organizations to abate the negative environmental impacts of their operations2.
Unfortunately, in response to the fear of being called out as a “greenwasher”, a new trend has surfaced known as greenhushing. Greenhushing is a term that has emerged as more and more organizations are pulling back their communications of the positive sustainability work they are doing, including emissions reductions and strategies for reaching net zero and carbon neutrality, for fear of criticism that their efforts do not go far enough3. Making a commitment towards a sustainability goal can make an organization vulnerable to public criticism. However, just as a lack of data can give the perception of greenwashing, a lack of transparency about pathways or progress towards a net-zero goal can foster mistrust of the organization’s efforts among the public4. Greenhushing can lead to less ambitious targets, less momentum toward achieving net zero, and the appearance of a lack of or insufficient urgency to meet our global net-zero goals that are essentials to limiting the worst impacts of climate change.
Greenwashing and greenhushing are serious accusations with negative consequences, but these labels can be avoided or debunked by being transparent about organizations’ efforts and progress towards net-zero goals. Transparent data is an essential tool to demonstrate progress on climate goals and measure how close or far we are from achieving the necessary target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius5. Organizations’ understanding of their internal and external greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the first step to determining what is required to reach net zero. Because organizations cannot meet goals that are not being measured, it is especially important to understand their GHG footprint before setting a serious goal to achieve net zero. Credible and rigorous data, that is third-party verified, provides a strong foundation to then set short-term and long-term goals to mitigate risks resulting from the worsening impacts of climate change. Achieving these goals is not an easy task by any means, but robust, transparent data allows for barriers to success to be identified more quickly and strategies to be devised to overcome these challenges6. Without data to back up ambitious pledges, the targets are vulnerable to accusations of greenwashing, as a result of a lack of communication of sustainability efforts.
An important step to taking action on climate change for an organization is to make a pledge to reduce GHG emissions, however this step is ineffectual without the follow-up of showing the pathways and emissions data to back up that pledge. Demonstrating transparency of processes and progress on the road to net zero allows for knowledge sharing and collaboration to enhance and support the efforts of all organizations, embraces accountability from stakeholders and investors, demonstrates an organization’s leadership among peers, and raises ambition for others who are considering setting net-zero goals. Each of these attributes sets climate leaders apart from greenwashers by providing the verified data to back up their commitments. Innovators and early adopters of ambitious and transparent climate strategies are creating a roadmap for others to learn from their best practices and help make rigorous climate action the status quo.
As net zero commitments started becoming more common, The Climate Registry identified the need for a central repository of transparent and credible data around organizations’ net-zero targets. In early 2023, we launched the Net-Zero Portal, with the goal of housing detailed information on net-zero targets and their pathways. This tool was developed in collaboration with a diverse group of industry stakeholders to help accelerate ambition and collaboration and provide insight for organizations who do not yet have a pathway or a roadmap for how they might go about tackling this critical issue. The ability to compare pathways and learn from other strategies on GHG emissions reductions, especially for Scope 3, helps everyone accomplish the difficult task of achieving a net-zero goal. Organizations are all still learning and adapting as new technologies and practices are developed and shared. The more they can be transparent about challenges and roadblocks they are facing, the more they can collaborate and share information with others to tackle these complex challenges and develop solutions together. Additionally, organizations that have a target and a defined pathway can use this tool to showcase their leadership in taking ambitious climate action, track their progress, and learn from others’ strategies. The Net-Zero Portal allows organizations to not only show their emissions data, but also tell their story about how they are accomplishing their goals and what successes and challenges they have encountered along the way. The ability to tell a story alongside hard data allows for a level of knowledge sharing and collaboration that can be difficult to find in the current landscape, with so much information about targets buried in reports or hidden behind paywalls that are not available to the public.
The Net-Zero Portal is a free, public platform available to any company, organization, and subnational government around the world. The goal is to make the data comparable in order to ramp up ambition and accountability and help organizations learn from each other. Organizations can detail their interim targets and show their progress as they work towards achieving these goals. The ability to update pledges and show stakeholders that progress is being made towards net-zero goals will help avoid claims of greenwashing or greenhushing by demonstrating that the organization not only has a plan, but they are actively working on implementing it. Providing robust emissions data allows stakeholders, consumers, and investors to see the progress organizations are making and understand where they are seeing success and where there may be challenges down the road. Providing in-depth, high-quality data, protects organizations from potential backlash around their net-zero strategy in the long run. Showing progress over time allows others to see how organizations are adapting and making changes as new technologies arise or as they begin to find strategies to accelerate targets. This helps to encourage others to be more ambitious with their efforts and supports our collective effort to limit global temperature rise.
Transparency on the path to net zero embraces scrutiny and accountability as a positive force of change to hasten momentum. The Net-Zero Portal celebrates the steps that have been taken by organizations who are already on their way to net zero and encourages those that are just beginning, to strive to be as rigorous and ambitious as those who are already leading the way. When others begin to understand the importance of making these commitments, or are required to through regulations, they will look to the climate leaders to see what works and what does not. All efforts taken to tackle ambitious climate action are important and essential to achieving global climate goals. These efforts require widespread knowledge sharing and an understanding that achieving global climate goals is a collective process that we all must tackle together.
4 Janet Peace, “Break Out the Megaphone: How to Combat Greenhushing”, GreenBiz Net Zero, Online, https://www.greenbiz.com/events/netzero/2023/sessions/break-out-megaphone-how-combat-greenhushing