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‘Fight for the soul of the industry’: adland under scrutiny from watchful green activists

Brandalism has called out Natwest, a Cop26 sponsor, for misleading customers around its green credentials

Environmental activist groups are increasingly turning their attention to the influence of the ad industry, condemning it for its complicity in facilitating the climate emergency. With Cop26 on the horizon, activists are making demands. Can ad agencies really be part of the solution?

From November 1-12, Glasgow will play host to the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted, Cop26. The spotlight is now on corporations and the marketing industry that drives these businesses to address their role in the climate crisis and offer a course correction in the immediate future.

From Brandalism to Badvertising to Adfree Cities, a growing number of climate activist groups are targeting the advertising industry for using its influential powers to manufacture consent for the continued destruction of the planet at the hands of big business.

From working for high-carbon clients, to minimizing their environmental impact through greenwashing campaigns, or selling and promoting unsustainable lifestyles, these groups take the position that the marketing industry is just as responsible for the climate crisis as the large corporations they work for and that reform is crucial if we are to correct course and halt the climate emergency before it’s too late.

But with its cultural power and wealth of conscientious creative talent, could the ad industry be a key driver of change and help shape a sustainable future?

As Futerra co-founder Solitaire Townsend tells The Drum: “At the moment we are in a fight for the soul of the industry. In 20 or 30 years’ time, we will see whether it is one of the primary drivers of solutions for the climate crisis, or whether it will be regarded as one of the architects of destruction.”

Greenwashing legislation

Perhaps the most widespread call for change across the advertising and marketing industries is one for legislation around greenwashing. The ASA in October enforced new rules designed to clamp down on greenwashing for the first time – and there will be more to come.

Energy giants have unsurprisingly been slammed for minimizing their damage to the environment as well as over-emphasizing green investments in their marketing. High-carbon industries that run off fossil fuels, including aviation and automotive, have similarly been criticized for greenwashing tactics.

Guerilla ‘subvertising’ group Brandalism also recently targeted banks such as Barclays and HSBC for financing fossil fuel investment while downplaying the fact in their marketing tactics.

Tona Merrimen of the organization said: “The ad 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.”

The sentiment was echoed by the CMA, it subsequently releasing its Green Claims Code. Meanwhile, Merrimen says “greenwashing is the second wave of climate denial in which polluters use false claims about carbon offsetting and ‘net zero’ to delay meaningful climate action.”

He says he will “bring the ad agencies who do this greenwashing back into the picture.”

Other tactics include environmental lawyers pushing for tobacco-style health warnings on fossil fuel ads. Back in April, Client Earth released its Greenwashing Files, which included new evidence and analysis showing that some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies have used advertising to downplay their continuing contribution to climate change.

The analysis shows that companies routinely misrepresented the sustainability of their activities and avoided companies’ total greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint, overrepresented clean energy investments and promoted commercially unproven ‘solutions’ – such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – to enable continued fossil fuel production.

Further scrutiny of the industry over these matters is expected at the highest level going forward, as this week the chief executives of four major oil and gas companies and two major trade associations will face questioning by the US House Oversight and Reform Committee about the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation.

Net-zero commitments

Last year, the Advertising Association (AA), in partnership with the IPA and ISBA, launched Ad Net Zero, an industry-wide initiative to help UK advertising respond to the climate crisis caused by CO2 emissions.

The scheme consists of a five-point plan that includes curtailing the carbon emissions of agencies’ operations, committing to working with clients to develop lower-carbon media plans, building sustainability criteria into awards and utilizing the power of the industry to promote more sustainable consumer choices.

Speaking on the push, Stephen Woodford, chief executive officer of the Advertising Association, tells The Drum: “Ad Net Zero, which is well-backed across the industry, is just at the beginning of a decade-long plan to support the UK’s shift to a net-zero economy. It will expand beyond the UK in the coming months using Cop26 as a springboard.”

He claims: “We already have 1,500 ad professionals from around the world joining us to discuss this issue.”

Initiatives such as AdGreen launching its free carbon calculator are also helping brands and advertising agencies to measure the CO2 emissions produced by ad campaigns in an effort to help the industry reach net zero by 2030. In the run-up to Cop26, many agencies including holding companies such as WPP have gone one step further and committed to becoming net zero; however, skeptics suggest that these commitments do not reveal the true extent of the industry’s impact.

A recent whitepaper by campaign group Clean Creatives reveals a loophole in the sustainability commitments of US and UK ad agencies suggesting that they minimize the true carbon impact of their work with fossil fuels clients.

Duncan Meisel, campaign manager of Clean Creatives, says that “despite their sustainability goals and past pledges to stop working with climate deniers, nearly all of the world’s largest PR and ad firms continue to work with fossil fuel industry clients. WPP does business with Shell and Chevron, Omnicom’s BBDO does much of ExxonMobil’s advertising, Ogilvy runs branding exercises for BP.”

Futerra’s Townsend suggests that in the future, groups such as the SBTI may demand agencies include their clients’ carbon footprints as a percentage of their own – which would derail many net-zero commitments as they currently stand.

Creative Climate Disclosure is also calling for transparency over the amount of agency revenue derived from working with high-carbon clients, holding signatories to account by asking them to commit to disclosure before the end of the year.

Townsend says that this will be crucial for the industry going forward, as “the youth climate movement is becoming increasingly suspicious of a refusal to disclose information, but uncomfortable transparency is always the first step toward change.”

Adfree cities

Following in the footsteps of other industries, such as opiates, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and junk food, high-carbon sectors such as aviation, automotive and the fast fashion industry are likely to see growing restrictions as to how and where they market their products.

The city of Amsterdam recently became the first in the world to ban fossil fuel advertising – including those for fossil-fueled vehicles including cars and aviation from its city center and underground railway stations.

A subsequent European Citizens Initiative has been launched by the Ban Fossil Fuel Ads group calling for EU law to ban this kind of advertising and sponsorships within local councils. In the UK, Liverpool, Norwich and North Somerset councils have all passed motions to implement similar measures. There is also increasing pressure from activist networks such as Adfree Cities to see initiatives of this kind rolled out on a larger scale.

Robbie Gillett, arts director at Adfree Cities and campaign manager at Badvertising, says: “We are organizing at a grassroots level on a city-by-city basis, calling on a ban for fossil fuel advertising. We see fossil fuels as being among the most egregiously harmful products.”

Changing consumer habits

Industry bodies such as the Advertising Association acknowledge the power the industry has to help consumers make sustainable choices and use its power to spread information. Woodford says: “Our industry has a key role in behavioral change and encouraging competition and innovation. Advertising can play a strong part in normalizing sustainable consumption and promoting the circular economy.

“We can also help advise clients and support their own drives for internal change. Advertising professionals can and should grab the opportunities for promoting sustainable products and services and to accelerate the transition to net zero.”

Gillett says the ad industry needs to stop promoting unsustainable lifestyles. “We see these come to the fore at times like Christmas and on Black Friday – the kind of spending we are encouraged to do and the environmental impact of the products in question are among our more general critiques of the industry.”

Townsend believes the industry can step up to the brief. “It has serious problems and engages in some deeply unethical behaviors, however ... to reach a sustainable future and halt climate change, we need to enthuse and engage public support and even the IPCC acknowledges that harnessing the power of the advertising industry is an absolute necessity.

“If the industry thinks it exists to drive consumption, we are all screwed. It exists to enable change and we need the ad industry to help shift consumer behaviors to more sustainable products and services.”

The eyes of the world will be on Cop26, the most important climate conference to date. Large-scale protests seem inevitable, with some estimates suggesting that up to 300,000 people will be in attendance. The brands and agencies that don’t attempt to meet climate demands could face a serious backlash.

The Drum will be on the ground across the conference, reporting on the latest events as it affects the creative, marketing and advertising industries. You can follow our coverage of events as they unfold on our new Cop26 hub here.

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