The creative industry is wide-ranging; encompassing a range of skills, perspectives and innovative approaches to communication. However, many of the major companies in this field are currently enabling huge polluters fossil to continue escalating climate breakdown.
Read on to learn more about the problems at hand, as well as what Clean Creatives are doing to change things.
The problem: promoting big polluters
The world of advertising and public relations is facing the largest corporate social responsibility challenge since the pushback against big tobacco. The last few years in particular have seen a growing movement of industry professionals, (including strategists, creatives and industry leaders) and regulators recognising that creative agencies play a major role in supporting the largest polluters across the world.
By taking on fossil fuel industry clients, creative companies help these polluters greenwash their actions and curate a palatable image, contributing to maintaining their social license. However, they also actively support accelerated climate breakdown by helping to grow business for these corporations. In this context this refers to: any corporations involved in extraction, transportation, refining and selling fossil fuels, alongside trade associations and front groups representing their interests.
The International Energy Agency has stated that the energy sector is responsible for roughly 75% of global emissions, but they have also been clear that there can be no new investment in fossil fuels going forward. As recently as 2019, however, major oil companies spent over 99% of their capital expenditures on developing oil and gas projects.
As long as the creatives help fossil fuel giants maintain their public image and grow their business interests, they can’t say they’re neutral. Instead, they are actively complicit in climate catastrophe. If we want to achieve climate justice things need to change, as evidenced by an open letter signed by over 450 scientists in January 2022 calling on the industry to drop fossil fuel clients.
As scientists who study, and seek to communicate, the realities of the climate emergency on both the planet and people, we are constantly faced with the challenge of overcoming advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies that seek to obfuscate or downplay our data, and the risk of the climate emergency. In fact, these campaigns represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency, and avert total disaster
Fossil fuel clients vs sustainability pledges
Many major advertising and PR firms have announced goals and policies to reduce their carbon footprint, mainly focusing on areas such as offices, travel, and production. So far these pledges amount to a reduction of less than 7 megatons of carbon per year. It’s difficult to view these pledges with any seriousness, however, when this amount is equal to around one month of the carbon impact of a single fossil fuel client, Exxon, under their current business plans. Companies can make pledges all they want, but they will fail to address climate breakdown when they continue working with some of the world’s largest polluters.
Regardless of what they say, the largest part of any agency’s footprint is the work they do for their clients. When these clients are giant fossil fuel companies this footprint is huge, rendering any sustainability or net-zero company plans worthless.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
On Earth Day 2021 WPP pledged to reach net-zero across all of its operations. An extensively detailed plan was released, which even included energy used to run banner ads across the internet, aiming for reductions of 5.4 mt of carbon annually by 2025 across the entire group of agencies.
However, WPP’s client list also includes BP in Ogilvy, Shell at WundermanThompson, and Exxon in both Hill + Knowlton and Burson Cohn and Wolfe. These clients alone account for 423x the carbon footprint of WPP’s operations. Their plan is nothing but empty words when generating a sales increase of just 0.2% across these clients would immediately eradicate the impact of WPP’s entire ‘net-zero’ plan.
Interpublic released a net-zero plan that includes using 100% renewable energy by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2040, accounting for reductions of 211 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. However, their agency Carmichael Lynch’s campaign for oil giant Conoco Phillips resulted in sales of 40,000,000 gallons of gasoline. This carbon impact is greater than the entire company’s footprint.
Additionally, their extensive work for Exxon at Weber-Shandwick and UM Media contributes directly to Exxon’s strategies to obstruct climate action by governments. Interpublic can use renewable energy all it likes, but Exxon’s plans to increase oil production by 52%, and gas production by 27% by 2030 will counter any impact this would’ve had.
Publicis has plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 alongside regular reporting on annual emissions. However, they also work with companies such as Total, which plans to expand oil production and leave gas production virtually unchanged. It’s impossible to be carbon neutral while supporting mass oil expansion by your own clients.
@cleancreatives Literally having to put this video on x5 speed because the list is endless – but we’re here at #CannesLions2022 to change that. #Cannes #Marketing #EcoTok #Omnicom #Clients #PRTok #MarketingTok #AgencyTok #Agencies #BanFossilAds ♬ Funny Song – Cavendish Music
For a list of advertising and PR companies working for fossil fuel clients, alongside further case studies, read the full report here.
The eroding social license
The number of professionals rejecting work supporting the fossil fuel industry is growing across the creative world, with a report from PF company Edelman finding that 60% of employees would leave a company that is doing ‘fundamentally immoral’ work. As the fossil fuel industry’s social license continues to fall apart, this is exactly how many young creatives view taking on these corporations as clients.
Both regulators and governments are now also catching on, focusing on the relationships between the fossil fuel industry and agencies hired to greenwash their pollution. Amsterdam has banned fossil fuels ads outright, Seattle has banned ads on public transport, and France has passed a national ban. Plus, social media platforms are also under growing pressure to address paid disinformation in the form of fossil fuel advertising, while Washington D.C., New York City and the US States Minnesota, Vermont, and Massachusetts have all filed legal actions addressing disinformation by oil companies about climate breakdown.
In recent years BP also lost a case filed by ClientEarth, addressing their false claims about their commitment to climate action. In the US, a similar action was filed against Chevron by Global Witness and Earthjustice, while Shell was ordered by multiple Dutch courts to stop campaigns that contain greenwashing.
Both Shell and BP have been rebuked by regulators in the Netherlands and UK, respectively, demanding that they end campaigns that mislead the public about their actual commitments to renewable energy and a responsible climate future. Shell has even gone so far as to disclose to investors that “as of February 11, 2021, Shell’s operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell’s Net-Zero Emissions target,” even while widely advertising that target to the public and regulators.
Each of these campaigns sits alongside larger work to erode the social license that fossil fuel corporations cling to through affiliations with creativity and culture. As fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts continues to come under fire (with multiple cultural venues dropping sponsorship altogether), agencies that continue to work with fossil fuels find themselves more privy to both legal scrutiny and public judgement.
If we want a future centred on climate justice, it’s imperative that creative industries extend this to clients who represent a tangible threat to our future.
Who are Clean Creatives
Clean Creatives is a movement of advertisers, PR professionals, and their clients cutting ties with fossil fuels. Any sustainable gains made by a creative company can be undone by one campaign for a fossil fuel client; since their inception Clean Creatives have convened hundreds of individual creatives and dozens of agencies to reject contracts with fossil fuel companies instead.
The Clean Creatives pledge is the best way for creatives to show they’re committed to a future for the industry that doesn’t include promoting pollution. As creatives or leaders of agencies, the pledge commits to declining future contracts with the fossil fuel industry. As clients, it commits to refusing to work with agencies that maintain fossil fuel industry clients.
Clean Creatives at Cannes
“There’s something ironic and disturbing about the Cannes Lion Festival. We’re surrounded by the most extravagant of settings – yachts and all – to celebrate the impacts of some of the biggest agencies who actively work with climate-wrecking oil and gas companies. Our mission is to ask the greatest creative minds in the industry to stop using their skillset to misinform, and become part of the solution.”
– Duncan Meisel, Executive Director of Clean Creatives
This year Clean Creatives were also on the ground at Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity 2022, a global festival that is considered the largest gathering of the advertising and creative communications industry. The Clean Creatives team brought a group of young creatives to the festival, focusing on creating anti-fossil fuel content and challenging industry leaders to consider how working with fossil fuel clients enables extreme amounts of pollution and damage to go unchecked.
@cleancreatives are in Cannes to ask you to choose your side, you are either part of the solution to solve the climate crisis or enablers of the climate killers like @WPP @Omnicom @publicisgroupe @accenture @interpublicIPG @EdelmanPR @FTIconsulting @ROSAPARISagency#CannesLions pic.twitter.com/wJ6sAQBGFh
— Edina Ifticene (@Edina_Ifticene) June 21, 2022
The Clean Creatives campaign undertook a range of actions over the festival, including disrupting an event to call out the CEO of Shell Brands, Dean Aragón, to ask why Shell hides its impact on women and a ‘Show Where You Stand’ challenge, where the team asked passing Cannes attendees to show whether they were happy to work with fossil fuel clients or work towards solving the climate crisis.
@cleancreatives they think the characters in succession are the good guys 👀 #fyp #canneslions2022 #cannes2022 #adayinmylife #dayinmylife #climatechange #climateaction #agencylife #agencytok ♬ Paradise – Ikson
These actions at Cannes were vital for raising more awareness and sparking conversation, but there is a lot of work left to do. Over 900 creatives and 290 agencies have signed the Clean Creatives pledge, join them today if you also work in these industries by taking the pledge here.
And ultimately, let’s call this out whenever we see it. When we see fossil fuel corporations greenwashing adverts focusing on vague ‘net-zero’ and ‘sustainability’ claims don’t just go for them, put pressure on the creative agencies who put together these campaigns and enable these toxic industries to continue.
It’s time to remove the social license in every single arena of the public sphere. It’s time for creatives to stand up.