Brandalism Creative Works Greenwashing

Guerilla billboard campaign criticizes Barclays’s fossil fuel funding


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

September 23, 2021 | 8 min read

Guerilla ‘subvertiser’ Brandalism revealed 200 satirical artworks across the UK critiquing Barclays’s financing of fossil fuel companies and accusing it of greenwashing as the countdown to November’s Cop26 climate change conference begins.

Brandalism billboard

Satirical Barclays adverts were installed by Brandalism activists, adding pressure to banks to divest from fossil fuels

Brandalism states that the out-of-home (OOH) posters, which bear slogans such as “Banking on our future extinction” and “The quicker we burn the coal, the sooner the emissions will fall”, seek to highlight how “Barclays’ advertising helps uphold its reputation as a socially and environmentally responsible bank, while it continues to fund the dirtiest types of fossil fuel extraction and supports companies responsible for mass-scale deforestation”. The campaign follows previous Brandalism actions targeting HSBC and Standard Chartered banks, which finance fossil fuels.

Brandalism billboard

At present, Barclays’s commitment to sustainability is underpinned by its pledge to divest from fossil fuels and become carbon neutral by 2050. A spokesperson from the bank tells The Drum: “We are aligning our entire financing portfolio to support the goals of the Paris Agreement – significantly scaling up green financing, directly investing in new green technologies and helping clients in key sectors change their business models to reduce their climate change impact.

“By 2025, we will reduce the emissions intensity of our power portfolio by 30%, and reduce absolute emissions of our energy portfolio by 15%. Increasing at pace, our capital markets business has already facilitated £46bn of green finance. We are one of the only banks globally investing our own capital – £175m – into innovative, green startups. By deploying finance in this way, we are accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy and will become a net zero bank by 2050.”

However, a previous investigation by Bloomberg has estimated that since the Paris Agreement was ratified in 2015, the bank has arranged $95.7bn of bonds and loans for oil, gas, coal and nuclear power. Furthermore, governing body the International Energy Agency has stipulated that in order to effectively address the current climate crisis there ought to be no new investment in fossil fuel energy in order to reach net zero by 2050.

When asked its thoughts on Brandalism’s campaign, Barclays declined to go on the record on the grounds it does not comment on “protest activity”.

Creative industries are complicit

Speaking to The Drum, Brandalism’s Tona Merriman elaborates that the aim of the OOH campaign is not only to draw attention to the importance of banks, brands and corporations divesting from fossil fuels, but to highlight the complicity of the creative and communications industries in propping up the brands not taking action against climate change.

“Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Futurebrand, Landor & Fitch, McCann, BBH, Droga5 – all these agencies that work with Barclays are helping to prop up a climate criminal, either by masking the true environmental impact of their investments and financing activities, or by simply not mentioning it.

“I imagine there’s some people working in agencies who think, ‘well, what has it got to do with me?’ But the fact is agencies who are working for high-carbon clients need to reassess their role in challenging brands like Barclays.”

Cracking down on greenwashing

The launch of the campaign by Brandalism follows news earlier this week that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will be cracking down on environmental and sustainability claims, warning that businesses have until the new year to ensure their claims comply with the law.

The CMA says it has become increasingly concerned about people being misled by environmental claims while also hoping to ensure that businesses feel confident navigating the law in this area.

Merriman says the announcement is welcome and long overdue. “It is, in fact, common sense to tell brands they cannot lie to customers, and we see our subvertising campaign as part of the same effort in countering the corporate communication messages of big brands who finance or are themselves polluters.

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“The advertising industry plays a large role in maintaining the social license to operate of big polluters. By putting out sappy ads, or warm and cuddly Instagram posts, the social and environmental impact of these companies becomes obscured by slick advertising.”

Jacob Dubbins is managing director of Media Bounty, an agency with a mission to become the UK’s leading ‘independent ethical creative agency’. He says the advertising industry’s role in the climate crisis is often downplayed. “Our job is to convince people to buy stuff or do something. We are very good at it. As it stands we are heavily in the business of selling things and doing things that put us on the ‘catastrophic’ path to the global temperatures rising 2.7 degrees. This is clearly unsustainable and very soon may become criminal.

“Earlier this month the US congress announced that it has launched an investigation, and will hold hearings, into the reported role of the fossil fuel industry in a long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change. The clock of accountability is ticking.”

Brandalism billboard

Dubbins adds that if the industry continues to advertise fossil fuels it must prepare for two things. “Firstly, answering the questions of congress, parliamentary select committees or even lawyers on your role in the climate catastrophe. Secondly, answering the questions of your family when they ask, ‘what did you do?’

“Or are you going to step up, take the difficult decisions to refuse the money already on the table and lead this industry to keep us to between 1.5-2 degrees? For me that decision has been blindingly obvious for a very long time.”

As Cop26 looms closer, Barclays has said it will review its policy on fossil fuel lending in time for the conference, which takes place in Glasgow in November. Merriman’s view is that “ahead of Cop26, banks like Barclays will tell the world how much they’re investing in renewables”.

“But what’s more significant is how much they continue to pour into fossil fuels. Put simply, it’s not enough to fund the good stuff – they’ve also got to stop funding the bad stuff.”

Brandalism Creative Works Greenwashing

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