Conversations around the ad industry’s role in facilitating greenwashing are only getting louder.
The eyes of the world are on Glasgow as the Cop26 summit continues, and dissent is growing against the corporate presence within its walls. From Greta Thunberg calling the conference “the global north greenwash festival,” to anger at the presence of fossil fuel companies that were supposed to be excluded, patience is wearing thin against large corporations masking their true environmental impact through marketing.
Activists are demanding radical reform from the advertising industry – whether it’s by agencies boycotting working with high-carbon clients altogether, or pushing for tobacco-style regulations on their campaigns. But what will it really take for the industry to clean up its act? Does it even want to? And what price will it pay if it fails?
There is widespread consensus that restrictions on how and where high-carbon, high-polluting companies can promote their products and services are imminent. As Futerra’s co-founder Solitaire Townsend tells The Drum: “We saw it years ago with the tobacco industry, so it should come as no surprise.”
Townsend predicts that the movement will begin at a local level, as in Amsterdam, which recently became the first city to ban fossil-fuel and high-carbon industry advertisements from its underground and city center. However, the movement is now growing, with a European Citizens Initiative gaining signatures to roll this out across the EU.
Speaking on a recent panel at The New York Times’s Climate Hub in Glasgow, Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, told The Drum she expects this endeavor to be successful, and that we could soon see restrictions and even bans on fossil fuel and high-carbon advertising globally.
In the UK, advertising bodies such as the CMA and ASA have released new, broader guidance on environmental communications in the hopes of stemming the tide of greenwashing more generally. The ASA has now utilized those powers in an action against Alpro after it made an unsubstantiated claim in its strapline.
Anne-Marie Tomchak, founder and chief exec of DesignTracker – a tech company that helps people to decarbonize their homes – believes that legislation and regulation around corporate greenwashing will be the key to ensuring transparency and rebuilding consumer trust.
She says: “For marketing companies and advertisers it’s going to be increasingly difficult to justify continued reliance on money from fossil fuel companies without seeking that clarity from clients on how exactly they are transitioning to clean energy.
“It can be an uncomfortable process, but one that is worth doing, and imperative if we are going to get to where we need to go.”
However, many working within the industry believe these changes are not matching the urgency of the issue. Jacob Dubbins, managing director of Media Bounty, says the CMA and ASA guidelines are “welcome, but long overdue.”
At the same time, the Advertising Association is pushing its Ad Net Zero charter – a five-point plan to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing and running advertising to net zero by 2030. However, Chris Norman, chief executive of Good Agency, calls the plan “unambitious.”
“Agencies tackling their own carbon footprint is a tiny part of the problem. The real problem is that they are supporting and driving businesses that don’t have a plan at all. We have a position where we can influence leaders at very senior levels to say their briefs are not acceptable,” he says.
Concerns around greenwashing are now so great that if companies don’t act “it’s going to come home to roost,” says Norman – alluding to the potential for claims to escalate to the highest level, such as last week, when the chief executives of four major oil and gas companies and two major trade associations faced the US House Oversight and Reform Committee about the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation.
Boycotting high-carbon clients
Townsend affirms that because of this “we are going to start seeing a lot more investor activism, and agency backers questioning whether you have an adequate audit and risk committee, and what you are going to do if you are taken to court over greenwashing claims.”
Therefore debate remains ongoing across the industry as to whether agencies should cease working with fossil fuel and high-carbon clients altogether.
Some networks, including the Clean Creatives initiative, are calling for businesses not to accept future work from fossil fuel producers, from energy companies that source more than 50% of their power from fossil fuels, or from trade bodies representing the petrochemical industry.
Many of the agencies interviewed here including Good, Media Bounty and Futerra do not work with high-carbon, high-emission clients. The Drum reached out to other agencies such as Wunderman Thompson, which works on HSBC’s ‘climate change doesn’t do borders’ campaign (one that has been repeatedly accused of greenwashing by climate activists), but it declined to comment.
Tomchak heeds that the decision over whether or not to work with fossil fuels in the interim will “be a very easy binary decision for some and a more nuanced and uncomfortable one for others.”
“The key words in this process are transparency and accountability. If marketers want to avoid being accused of greenwashing and if they're really serious about building and maintaining trust then they need to properly scrutinize client briefs, climate targets and roadmaps. Failing to do that is the equivalent of working with a blindfold.”
Norman is of the view that agencies could conceivably continue to work with high-carbon companies, but only if they are committed to solutions. He says agencies can and should push back on briefs from clients if they are proposing to mask their environmental impact.
“Clients would hate it, but I would say go with absolute transparency and use your marketing to outline the iterative steps you plan on taking and use communication to engage stakeholders in helping them solve the problem.”
Many climate activist groups are resistant to this, however, saying that even small players such as ad agencies have a role to play in opposing the survival of fossil fuel and high-polluting companies. Norman pushes back on this, saying: “It’s an interesting challenge as so many campaign groups out there are saying stop oil, stop gas, but there are consequences to that.”
He points out that primarily this is because the livelihoods of so many are tied up in the system as it stands – a sentiment echoed by organization Greenpeace, which advocates for the transition of workers in the gas and fossil fuel industries to greener alternatives.
The same can be said of the advertising industry, as so many agencies derive large portions of their revenues from working with fossil fuel and high-carbon clients.
Townsend warns that “if you’re literally dependent on working with one or two clients [that] are also being legislated against left, right and center, you are purposefully putting yourself in a very precarious position. Agencies are completely unprepared for how to respond to this.”
This is in no small part due to the growing sense that the advertising and marketing industries will struggle to both hire and retain talent if they continue working with unethical clients.
Norman says: “Frankly, this is the biggest threat to agencies out there. Nobody wants to work in or with a company that is covered in carbon. And there is a huge shift in talent no longer wanting to engage with these industries, and agencies will struggle to keep talent if they don’t clean up their act.”
Townsend says the problem lies in the reality that the industry as it stands has been built by creatives and leaders “from a generation where being extremely skilled at selling more shit to more people was highly valued, and we are about to see a fundamental, generational shift where those skills are no longer what anyone needs.”
Therefore, the question remains as to how the industry can move away from working with high-carbon clients, and the greenwashing that demands, in favor of using its influence to work toward a more sustainable future.
Townsend is of the view that greenwashing work done by agencies often isn’t malicious, but ignorant. “We’ve got a massive problem in this industry because most people in it don’t understand the nuances and the science of sustainability, to the extent [that] we are now in a position where regulators are coming after these claims, and that could have been avoided,” she says.
She believes that we now need the advertising industry to help shift consumer demand toward a different set of products and services. “I think it’s an old-fashioned view that we don’t need the advertising industry because it exists to drive consumption.
“We desperately need large amounts of communication to solve this problem, and that will be extremely lucrative in the future. You might not be selling a load of insecurities to women, you might not be selling gas-guzzling cars, but you will be selling something far more interesting.”
There is also, of course, the simple fact that advertising must clean up its greenwashing problem and use its considerable power to drive solutions – not because it is lucrative but because it is right.
Dubbins concludes that advertising has a huge role to play in communication and driving decarbonization strategies, and now faces the choice between “facilitating this, or watching as we descend into catastrophe.”
“I think about my kids and when they will ask in 10 years’ time about what I did, I want to be able to look them in the eye. That’s what it’s about – it’s not about representing your stakeholders, it’s about representing the future for your friends and family.”