Greenwashing Sustainability

Following the UN call for a fossil fuel ad ban, agencies must lead the charge


By Caroline Davison, Managing Director And Sustainability Lead

June 10, 2024 | 6 min read

Caroline Davison, managing director and sustainability lead at agency Elvis, tells agencies to get prepared for an inevitable ban on fossil fuel advertising.

Steam coming out of a factory

The UN has called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising. What if agencies, instead of waiting for the ban, lead the way? / Pexels

The United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has called on governments to ban fossil fuel advertising and warned creative agencies to stop working for fossil fuel companies.

“Many in the fossil fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action - with lobbying, legal threats, and massive ad campaigns. They have been aided and abetted by advertising and PR companies - Mad Men fueling the madness” said Guterres.

It is not insignificant that the UN has called our industry out. The question agencies need to ask themselves now is whether they are going to expedite the process by saying no to fossil fuel clients (putting themselves on the right side of history) or continue to claim that the tiny percentage of capital expenditure being invested in renewable technologies by their fossil fuel clients is justification for business as usual.

The banning of tobacco advertising demonstrates that a similar outlawing of fossil fuel ads is not just feasible, it’s inevitable, and agencies should start planning accordingly. Other countries are already leading the way - France banned fossil fuel advertising in 2022 and similar bans are being considered in Canada and Ireland. Last week the city of Edinburgh followed suit, banning ads for fossil fuel companies alongside ads for airlines, airports, cars (except electric and hydrogen vehicles), all SUVs, and cruise holidays.

The challenge for agencies in relinquishing fossil fuel clients is wholly financial. Such companies have deep pockets and these clients are likely to be the most profitable accounts so moving away from them will not be without pain. But leaning into the decision now and taking steps to counter the impact, taking the opportunity to re-imagine the role the agency of the future can play, will help.

Purpose Disruptors’ Advertised Emission reports (2021 and 2022) provide some useful guidance around how to go about this. Redirecting talent to lower carbon brands, shifting client portfolios using the RAG framework, and diversification can all be brought into play. The key is to start transitioning now. Agencies with fossil fuel clients should be looking at and committing to phase-out plans. The Advertiser Carbon Index, proposed by Purpose Disruptors as part of that 2022 report, uses a set of nine topic areas and associated questions to help agencies answer the question of who to work with given we are in a climate emergency.

Failure to prepare is a financial risk

If I were a chief financial officer I would certainly have fossil fuel clients near the top of my risk register and be looking at how to mitigate that risk. Climate-related financial disclosure regulations are bringing business decisions into sharper focus. This might be a good place to start a conversation within your agency if you are not sure how to bring the topic up: how is the business planning for this known risk that they are legally required to report on?

One of the reasons for a pushback on a change of course from agencies is the impact on jobs.

Yes, a ban will certainly affect your job if you work on a fossil fuel client. But it’s likely a growing number of people who work on those accounts are wrestling with their conscience anyway. What is important is for agencies to support the people impacted in a kind and compassionate way, rather than thinking of them as collateral damage. Moving people into other roles, upskilling, and being honest about what a transition will look like rather than playing the ostrich until it’s too late, is what good leadership looks like.

A recent IPA report found that 49% of ad agency respondents felt their agency was doing too little to address climate change and that climate anxiety is far higher for those working in the ad industry than the general public. Now is the time to talk more openly about it; otherwise, it is only going to get worse.

Guterres’ speech comes at a time when the non-profit advocacy group Oil Change International reports that the world’s top international oil companies are planning significant expansions of oil and gas production, increases that would push global temperatures well beyond the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees celsius target. So, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we used his comments as a collective impetus to change?

The IPA reports that 70% of industry insiders said the industry was doing too little. What if the major advertising holding groups acknowledged the role the industry has to play in bringing about change for the good of society? What if we called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising ourselves? What if we took responsibility, took control, and rolled it out in such a way that it was a positive transition for all concerned? What if the advertising industry got back on the right side of history?

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