Stewart Pickering
November 24, 2023
Reading time:
8 min

Earlier this month, I was at Chatham House for Climate Change 2023, which highlighted a few critical workstreams of progress that could either make or break our best laid plans for the planet: political alignment, availability of climate finance, flipping the narrative on climate action, and empowering local authorities.

With COP28 just around the corner, we’re at the halfway mark between the Paris agreement in 2015 and its target year of 2030. During this time, we’ve seen an explosion of new terminology to describe businesses’ approaches to climate action – both good and bad. And with so many new terms, different metrics and new advances in technology, it can be hard to know what is actually good for driving change. But data can guide the way.


On the importance of green-trying

One look at the packaging of pretty much any product at the moment, and it’s clear that sustainability is in danger of being co-opted by corporate advertisers – the latest ‘feel good’ ploy to shift more units.

In the face of all this, I’ve been cheered recently by a couple of refreshingly honest announcements by brands – including Lego and Framework – about their own green credentials. 

This spirit of green-trying is important. It cuts through the two major no-nos blighting ESG efforts: green-lying (aka greenwashing) and green-denying (aka greenhushing). 

Here’s what the data has to say.

Greenwashing = climate lying


High on the list of brand soundbites is the claim that a product is carbon neutral. In many cases, this is achieved through the process of offsetting (by planting trees, for example). Buy enough carbon offsets, and the product’s emissions are ‘cancelled out’.

But according to the Guardian and researchers from Corporate Accountability:

Why it matters:

This has led to greater scrutiny around greenwashing, as companies seek to profit from the market premiums surrounding sustainable products and services. Delta Airlines have been taken to court over their $1bn pledge in 2020 to become “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline”, which predominantly relied on offsets. Apple are facing similar rancour in the EU over its claims that certain models of the new Apple Watch are the company’s “first-ever carbon neutral products”.

It’s disappointing to see so many brands boasting carbon neutrality in a way that is misleading and profit-driven. Not only does it dilute the importance of the emissions issue, it also detracts from those actually taking steps to improve their carbon impact. 

Carbon offsetting should be the Plan B. Companies’ first point of call needs to be looking at reducing their own direct impact. Focusing on using recycled content in products is good, but it also feels like we should be leaps ahead of this by now – looking at how we can repair and reuse rather than building in obsolescence to force an upgrade to a newer model.

Greenhushing = climate denying


On the flipside, unlike greenwashing, some companies are choosing to avoid showing or discussing their climate pledges altogether

In the world of investing, earlier this year the Washington Post reported that BlackRock’s webpage on sustainable investing had removed its previous tagline of “We are committed to supporting the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner”.

Why it matters: 

To me, the rise of greenhushing seems like a classic case of poor transparency, reporting and disjointed stakeholders not working together.

If we think of it like a business, you can often get departments that over-promise, vocalise opinions rather than facts, and tend to work in silos. Similarly, with company climate targets, we need to find more ways to foster a shared understanding and thinking, with companies taking accountability to be transparent and honest on their progress and setting realistic targets. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, stakeholders and the public can have more positive stories of collaboration rather than a constant tug of war. It’s a balance of trust on both sides of the coin.

Greentrying = A step towards climate transparency


A number of brands have sought to buck the ‘wash/hush’ trend of late. Modular laptop manufacturer Framework make it very clear that “We are not sustainable. And neither is any other device maker.” Instead, they offer a detailed independent breakdown of the environmental impact of their entire product lifecycle. The company’s Sustainability page is a beautiful lesson in scrollytelling that’s backed by data.


Lego is another high-profile example. The company’s recent ‘sustainability setback’ – taking the decision to abandon a scheme to make Lego bricks out of recycled plastic bottles – can be reframed as greentrying. Rather than chasing the instant gratification (and sales) that would come with bio-bricks, the brand’s spokespeople have been forthright about the complex supply-chain realities involved in such a switch.


Why it matters: 

I worked with Lego back in 2019 when they were first considering their approach to alternative materials. The ‘setback’ example highlights the need for businesses to do the research and get it validated and verified before making any decisions. Of course, our gut tells us that recycled plastic should be more sustainable than virgin plastic, but while we can use that instinct as the basis for a hypothesis, we need to test it properly first. 

Kudos should be given to Lego for being so transparent. They could very easily have chased the positive PR associated with ditching virgin material for recycled alternatives, but they’ve done the right thing. Yes, ‘Lego ditches recycled plastic’ isn’t a great look, but backing up that decision with science and data speaks volumes on their dedication to sustainability.

More from Stewart on Lego’s sustainability setback? That’s here.


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