The case for B Corp agencies taking on fossil fuel clients
In his latest letter to the industry, The Drum’s founder Gordon Young wonders if threatening the B Corp status of agencies that work with fossil fuel clients is the wrong approach.
Protestors gather to protest Shell partnerships / Angela Christofilou / Adfree Cities
The challenges around reaching net zero are huge. But the stark reality is that key organizations with both the resources and the technical expertise to get there are in the fossil fuels industry.
Last week, The Drum exclusively revealed that a group of 19 advertising agencies is demanding B Labs review its process for giving agencies that work with fossil fuel clients B Corp status. But this is counterproductive. To support the transition process, fossil fuel firms must have access to the best brains possible. And very often, the world’s best problem solvers are to be found in the marketing community.
B Lab gives its B Corp certification to any business that has met its standards across ESG. As part of this, members are asked to sign a declaration where they agree to run their businesses for the ‘benefit of all.’ But the 19 agencies – which include Good Agency, Kindred and Elvis – do not want much of the oil and gas industry to benefit from marketing agency expertise. And they do not want the likes of Havas, WPP or Dentsu to benefit from B Corp if they pitch and win the likes of the £200m Shell account.
Their letter stated: “We are writing to you to ask B Lab to take a hard line on those that work with fossil fuels. As you redefine your standards, we ask that you include not working with fossil fuel and high-polluting clients as a requirement of achieving B Corp accreditation.” The letter was prompted by comments made by B Lab’s director Chris Turner to The Drum on the dilemma faced by agencies pitching for Shell: “B Lab has not stipulated the exact industries that B Corps cannot work with. That being said, if a company has clients in the fossil fuels, defense, firearms, gambling, hazardous materials, pornography, prisons or tobacco industries, then their eligibility for certification would be reviewed.”
This position was consistent with B Lab’s stance on controversial industries generally. In 2020, a statement from its Standards Advisory Council made clear this is not the first time B Labs has had to grapple with demands to cancel sectors. “Particularly when it comes to industries that are controversial, there is a natural and healthy tension between the inclination to exclude all companies in those industries from eligibility for B Corp Certification and the need for leadership that has the potential to transform the culture, behavior and impact of those industries.”
B Labs is currently reviewing its guidelines but it should maintain this stance. It is certainly in its interest to do so. If it moves to ban agencies from working on fossil fuels, it will be effectively banning all B Corps from having clients in the sector. That would include auditors, consultancies and banks. The name of B Corp member Coutts serves as a cautionary tale here. Thanks to the Nigel Farage debacle, it underlined the political and commercial danger of firing clients based on their legally held beliefs.
The issue of whether the likes of B Corps rather than democratically elected governments should be proscribing people, organizations or industries has become a new hot front in the culture wars. A more sustainable strategy is for B Labs to focus on the B Corps themselves and trust them to make the difficult decisions and morale trade-offs that are part and parcel of operating in the real world. And that means agencies should be allowed to choose for themselves what clients suit their businesses and beliefs.
Allowing them to do so on an individual basis, as opposed to a collective one, prevents any inconsistencies from being compounded across entire sectors – and organizations such as B Labs being consumed by controversy or collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.
For example, if you cannot work on fossil fuel accounts, is it right that you can then work on firms that benefit from fossil fuels? How about a food firm that uses synthetic fertilizers? An aviation firm that uses jet fuel? A manufacturer that uses oil-derived materials? How about companies like The Drum, which is powered by search (if you found this article via Google you used enough energy to power a 60w lightbulb for 17 seconds)? All of which emphasizes how fossil fuel currently underpins our entire way of life.
Getting to net zero quickly is the biggest and most complex challenge ever faced by humanity. To resolve this, the skills and expertise held by agencies are urgently needed. You could argue marketing agencies almost have a duty to help the fossil fuel sector through this transition. Marketing can change the world. But only if it engages.