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Perspectives | Issue 12

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

‘Green hush’ at your peril

November 28, 2023
Leighton Klassen
Leighton Klassen | Consultant
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Corporate Canada is stepping up to cut emissions. While various ideological movements have made reporting progress a greater challenge, “green hushing” is not the answer


With extreme weather becoming more frequent and intense, and the consequences of wildfires now top of mind for Canadians, addressing climate change is no longer an abstract concept; it’s right before our eyes. This reality puts businesses on the spot.

Much of the attention on the climate change issue rightly falls to governments, but make no mistake: Canadians believe corporations have an important role to play. In fact, a recent study from Navigator’s research arm shows that nearly two thirds of Canadians believe companies should be addressing environmental initiatives, even if doing so reduces their short-term profitability.

There’s no question more businesses are taking this call seriously. The United Nations reported a sharp rise in companies setting science-based targets for emission reductions in 2022, with 87 per cent more businesses having their targets validated by the UN framework.

You might think such developments would have companies reaching for a megaphone, eager to broadcast their good news. Instead, two distinct movements in the opinion environment have meant the opposite.

The first is the charge of “greenwashing.” This label is used to refer to companies whose actions appear sluggish compared to their outwardly declared ambitions. Activist organizations, such as Greenpeace, have been vigorously litigious and outspoken in their attack on “greenwashed” initiatives, presenting formidable legal and reputational hurdles for major industry players that opt to promote or disclose their sustainability initiatives.

On the other side of the spectrum, critics have suggested that corporate sustainability and ESG investing go too far as an “ideological joyride” designed to punish oil and gas producers. Anti-ESG laws have been enacted in 15 U.S. states, with more than a dozen others planning similar moves. In other words, businesses with ESG plans are being attacked for doing too much and for doing too little. You can see why many firms are taking a quieter, more reserved approach called “green hushing.”

Green hushing isn’t just an anecdote. Businesses have become much shier about reporting on ESG initiatives, with The Globe and Mail reporting a 64 per cent drop over the past two years. The trend is understandable but misguided. Presumably, businesses that do green hush do so believing that concealing or downplaying their environmental efforts is the safer, lower-risk approach that will ultimately be better for business. This is simply not true. Businesses that can see past the noise are finding tremendous value.

A case in point. This June, Deloitte Canada released a report on sustainable products that showed that 60 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to pay a premium of 20 per cent or more for green products when companies could prove their authenticity.

While there can be gaps between reported purchasing preferences and revealed purchasing preferences, at minimum this tells us there’s a receptive market for green initiatives. If a company is spending the time and resources to be greener, it might as well tell the story.

In addition to creating value, corporate sustainability can also be the basis for partnerships. Industry leaders and Indigenous communities can mutually benefit from major projects in generating revenue, jobs and a higher quality of life in the communities where projects are developed. But Indigenous communities typically want assurance that companies are putting a high emphasis on sustainability, reducing emissions and reclaiming land. These are key criteria during project consultations and community members shouldn’t be learning about a company’s initiatives at their first meeting.

One particular industry that should not be green hushing is Canada’s huge oil and natural gas industry. Canada is the fourth largest exporter of crude oil and the fifth largest exporter of natural gas in the world. With the industry sometimes serving as a political football, its support from governments, stakeholders and partners alike is dependent on social responsibility.

We are seeing commensurate action. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers recently launched a campaign called Energy in Action, showcasing some of the largest oil and gas companies’ greenhouse gas-reducing initiatives and technologies, including those from Canadian Natural Resources, Shell and Crescent Point. It’s the right approach, one that responds to public demand for more information about our producers’ work to support good jobs, Indigenous-owned businesses, and lower carbon emissions.

The lesson learned from this politically polarizing discussion should not be for corporate Canada to cease communicating, but to be honest about the challenges that accompany their goals. At the end of the day, green hushing is an overcorrection to companies initially pushing their ESG efforts too forcefully, exaggerating achievements and misleading the public. As businesses glean hard-earned lessons and shift towards transparent yet proactive ESG communication, the trend of green hushing will fade away. That will happen for one simple reason: it’s bad for business.

In a landscape rife with misinformation, building and maintaining credibility remains the paramount approach, yielding benefits that far surpass any associated risks. As long as the impacts of climate change continue to be at the forefront of Canadian minds, reporting on green initiatives, centred on the fundamental principles of accurately and responsibly informing the public, will generate substantial advantages for businesses.

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About the author:

Leighton Klassen
Leighton Klassen | Consultant
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Leighton is a Consultant in Navigator’s Calgary office. He has worked in the private sector, non profit sector and for Canada’s oil and gas advocacy group, providing expertise in internal and external communications, crisis management and change management initiatives.  

Prior to joining Navigator, Leighton worked at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers leading internal communications in enhancing the organizations internal culture, change management practices, member engagement and led the coordination of external collateral. He also worked at WinSport – a recreational facility and ski hill at the site of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games – The Calgary Counselling Centre and Sanjel Energy Services in various communication roles. Prior to his career in corporate communications, Leighton worked as a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Winnipeg and Calgary. In his spare time, Leighton enjoys heading to the mountains with his wife, Kendra and dog Maggie for biking, XC skiing and kayaking.  

Leighton holds a B.A. in Communications from the University of Winnipeg. 

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