Climate Change Brand Strategy Sustainable Transformation

Over 130 companies plead with Cop28 to ditch fossil fuels – progress or PR move?


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

October 26, 2023 | 8 min read

Major brands, including Unilever, Vodafone and Ikea are urging world leaders to agree on a timeline for phasing out fossil fuels when they meet in Dubai next month for the UN climate summit.


Cop28 will be held in Dubai in November / Unsplash

131 companies representing over $1trn in global revenues have expressed concerns over climate change’s impact on their business. In an open letter pleading with global leaders to reduce emissions and the use of fossil fuels in line with the Paris Agreement, major brands stated: “Our businesses are feeling the impacts and cost of increasing extreme weather events resulting from climate change. We recognize the need to transition in a way that safeguards our future collective prosperity on a liveable planet.”

Signatories include Unilever, Vodafone, Ikea, AstraZeneca, BT Group, Danone, Curry’s, Iberdrola, Ebay and Volvo.

Coordinated by We Mean Business, a non-profit pushing for greater climate action, the letter marks the first time a collective of influential global businesses have applied pressure to governments to move away from fossil fuels.

Agreeing on a timeline to phase out fossil fuels is set to be one of the key discussions at Cop28, which begins in Dubai at the end of November. At last year’s summit, over 80 countries backed a proposal to decrease reliance on oil and gas over time, but it faced backlash from countries including Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Ikea told The Drum it signed the letter "to speed up the change” required to phase out fossil fuels at scale.

“Cop28 is a critical opportunity for policymakers and businesses to accelerate the transition by making the right decisions, taking action, and implementing the right policies, financing frameworks, and partnerships to move at speed and scale,” a spokesperson said.

Vodafone added that as producers of energy, businesses have an important role to play in creating demand for clean energy and driving a green transition. “Our European operations are already 100% powered by renewable energy, but to achieve this across our global footprint, we require governments and investors to commit to decarbonizing grids and making renewable energy widely available to businesses and consumers,” a spokesperson told The Drum.

Unilever similarly emphasized that joining up energy planning with better grid infrastructure would help businesses meet their net-zero targets across Scope 1 and Scope 2.

“Unilever is transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2030. But with over 70% of our emissions footprint coming from our raw materials and packaging, and a further 10% coming from our ice-cream cabinets, we need this transition to happen globally so that our suppliers and customers can decarbonize too, wherever in the world they operate,” a spokesperson explained to The Drum.

Progress or PR tactics?

Kate Levine, a strategic consultant and former global director of activism and communications at The Body Shop says it’s a powerful move from the signatory brands. “Business leaders - especially those generating many millions or even billions of pounds worth of revenue each year – can and do lobby government effectively to influence policy. Their decisions affect millions of lives, from their employees, customers and shareholders, to the communities in which they operate, their supply chains, business partners and so on. In short, they’re extremely powerful.”

She’s reassured by the rigor of the letter, as it calls out not only “for change from governments, fossil fuel producers and financial institutions, but also calls out their own roles and responsibilities as energy producers and users,” meaning they can be held to account in the future.

Zara Ineson, executive creative director at House 337 agrees it will send a clear statement to not only governments but investors and customers too. “Of course, the primary intent is to back scaled-up solutions that help save the planet, but there’s a strong business case here.”

She stresses that there remains a significant behavioral gap between GenZ supporting sustainable causes and spending money on (typically more expensive) sustainable products. “But this is narrowing. And the brands with progressive values that are at the forefront of fighting the climate emergency will come out on top.”

Levine adds that due to contributing global factors like the cost-of-living crisis, more people are aware than ever before of the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. “The annual Cop meetings – until recently, only acknowledged by those whose work was connected to the subject matter – are now front page news and regularly discussed on all forms of social media.”

She urges the companies that have signed the letter to double down on their communication about it, calling it "good business.”

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Darko Silajdžić, former group chairman of DDB Prague and chief executive at Imminent says it makes a change from brands’ historic climate apathy. “In the past, it was often regarded as bad for business,” he tells The Drum. “The minor brand value that this used to bring was often not deemed worthy of the effort and investment that was necessary."

He views this letter as a sign of the times changing, with ESG becoming a prime topic for brands that are waking up to its interest for customers and their own long-term business success. However, he warns: “While this is a necessary and very good trend, it also brings about a new debate, which lies in a number of companies using the climate and sustainability topic primarily as a PR platform, where they sign pledges, talk at conferences, and develop plans, which often do not come to life.

“What we as a society need is for large corporations to focus their efforts and recourses on tangible ESG initiatives and projects, instead of looking at it mainly as a PR opportunity for their brand, which is still often the case, unfortunately.”

Russ Avery, founder of B Corp agency Avery & Brown agrees that there is often skepticism when corporations push for climate action.

“Some may see [this letter] as a PR move or a form of greenwashing intended to boost their reputation among conscious consumers rather than out of a desire to drive real change. To counter this, the signatories of the letter will need to back up their words with meaningful internal actions to reduce their own emissions and environmental impact.”

You can read the letter in full here.

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