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Greenwashing Sustainability Social Media

Influencer marketing and greenwashing: just how big a problem is it?


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

September 5, 2023 | 11 min read

Big oil firms are tapping into the influence of social media stars in a bid to improve their image. Experts warn we could be facing a new wave of misleading content.

Oil influencer

Content creators are being paid worldwide to promote fossil fuel firms

An investigation by DeSmog last month uncovered hundreds of examples of content creators being paid to promote fossil fuel firms worldwide since 2017, resulting in campaigns reaching billions of people.

According to leaked internal documents from BP in 2020, oil and gas firms in the UK are implementing the strategy in a bid to become “more relatable, passionate and authentic” and “win the trust of the younger generations.”

Desmog’s investigation alleges Shell has been the biggest employer of influencer marketing over the last seven years. In 2017, the company worked with environmentalist Robert Swan by sponsoring his trip to the South Pole with his son Barney in order to promote its renewable biofuels.

Meanwhile, just three months ago, former BBC presenter Dallas Campbell fronted a five-part video for the fossil fuel giant lauding the climate benefits of low-carbon solutions like hydrogen.

James Turner is the founder of Glimpse, a network that engages young creatives on climate change. He tells The Drum that when Glimpse started out, it predominantly focused on engaging with those working within advertising agencies to empower them to have difficult conversations about fossil fuel clients. But after working alongside DeSmog, it’s now also tackling influencers working with oil and gas giants in anticipation of the trend becoming increasingly problematic.

Turner believes that while the issue is currently more prevalent in the US – that doesn’t mean tactics won’t sneak their way across the pond. “The ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] is certainly cracking down here in the UK and both regulation and legislation are catching up to greenwashing, but very smart advertising and PR companies remain one step ahead,” he says.

A spokesperson from the ASA told The Drum: “We haven’t seen a particular uptick in greenwashing via influencers, but we’re aware that this could become an issue, and we’re keeping a close eye on the situation to ensure that our rules are being followed.”

But rumblings of an incoming wave of fossil fuel brands greenwashing via influencers have also been picked up by the agencies. George Ince, director of influencer marketing at BBD Perfect Storm Influence, says that while it’s not seeing an increase in briefs from oil and fossil fuel brands as of yet, “we are aware of their growing presence and the intersection of this sector and the creator economy.”

Do agencies have a role in stopping this?

As fossil fuel companies turn to influencer marketing, agencies will inevitably play a bigger role in negotiating deals with social media stars. Though not all would steer the content creators on their books away from working with a brand if the brief was right, they do say they will need to consider the wider impact beyond the commercial incentive. Namely, the potential reputational damage working with a controversial brand could cause.

Emma Critchley-Lloyd, founder of Big Little London, says: “We always cover our backs – especially if it was a brief like this. We’ve worked with heavily regulated clients in the past (alcohol, gambling, supplements) where we know we have to do this due diligence up front ourselves. Firstly, to decide if it’s a campaign we want to put our name and reputation to, but secondly, because we know we’re likely to get more questions and pushback from influencers than with a food or drink brand, for instance.”

Lloyd says it’s the agency’s job to make sure it recruits the best influencers with the highest engagement rates but admits: “They can be the hardest to convince. If we go to them with a controversial client, it’s in our interest to have this info up front.”

Turner agrees that influencers are savvy these days. “One only hopes they do their due diligence on the companies that approach them, and there’s always going to be a line. You don’t see many influencers working for arms companies, for example.” But he’s optimistic that Glimpse’s work to progress the conversation through initiatives like its recent ‘Inside Job’ campaign will help to nip the issue in the bud.

‘Green’ influencers are being targeted

Of course, it’s not only the oil and gas firms that are hoping to get on the right side of consumers by working with popular content creators.

Brett Staniland made a name for himself as a contestant on ITV2’s hit reality dating show Love Island back in 2021 but today, he’s better known for his work making social media content about the climate impacts of the fashion industry. He lays claim to being the first contestant to turn down free clothes from the show’s then-fast-fashion sponsor in favor of wearing his own.

Staniland says that while he has never been approached by a fossil fuel brand, he is regularly contacted by fast fashion companies and unsustainable fashion brands hoping to convince his 100k Instagram followers of their green credentials.

“I’m very aware they’re using me to greenwash,” he says. “They know I have built a community that’s educated and informed but also of people who are wanting to learn.” It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. “If I’m going to work with a brand, it needs to be aligned with my values.”

@twinbrett H&M’s bins have been the heartbeat of their greenwashing for years and now we have an answer to where those clothes go. We must hold them accountable and Stop Waste Colonialism. Please see more on my IG! #waste #fashionwaste #hm #hmhaul #fastfashion #twinbrett #stopwastecolonialism #textilewaste ♬ original sound - Brett Staniland

Offering his advice to young creators like himself, Staniland says being transparent with audiences is the best course of action – and to work with management who understand your vision.

Glimpse’s Turner adds that the ‘Inside Job’ campaign was established for this reason: “To enlist the top young talent to playfully expose the problem while pointing to a radically different future, beyond high carbon brands.”

The role of regulators

But of course, beyond the ethics of influencers shilling for some of the world’s biggest polluters, there is the fact that oil and gas firms and influencers alike are increasingly under observation by advertising regulators.

In Ince’s view, the recent rise in ASA ‘greenwashing’ rulings points to a wider issue at play. “There is a growing need for a more targeted, industry-specific regulatory framework that accounts for the complexities of the energy sector, including how they work with influencers.”

Ince would call for more explicit labeling demands from the ASA and a future framework that would focus on influencers having access to impartial information before they agree on which brands to work with. He says only a well-informed influencer can make a true call about which companies they should and should not work with.

The ASA reassures The Drum that both influencer non-disclosure and misleading green claims are high-priority issues: “We’re working at scale to get ads that break the rules removed as our regulatory work moves from reactive (responding to complaints) to proactive (finding and getting problem ads removed),” a spokesperson says.

“As part of our Climate Change and Environment project, we’re also using the system to monitor green claims, and we’ve plans to keep expanding our capability and scale in this space.

“Our rules make it clear that ads need to not be misleading. They mustn’t imply that a company or product is greener than alternatives without robust evidence. They need to take into account the full lifecycle of any products being advertised, and shouldn’t imply a business is doing more than it is to reduce emissions.”

For both influencers and the agencies that represent them, this means being as informed as possible on both the client’s environmental pledges and up-to-date advertising regulations. But, the ethical dilemma remains. When it comes to influencers working with high-polluting clients, Turner says: “There’s the question of what is legal and then there’s what is right.”

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