Greenwashing. Is. Everywhere.

Once you’re aware, it’s impossible to unsee it. From cheap flights to fast fashion to fossil fuel companies themselves, across the world advertising screams at us from billboards and bus stops, movie screens and podcast ad breaks. All pushing us to consume more than we need of things that won’t make us happy. Fulfilment promised with ‘just one more thing’, yet never actually arriving.

Some adverts can be directly linked with rising emissions: in the last decade sales of SUVs (giant cars that on average produce 20% more CO2 emissions than conventional cars) have skyrocketed. SUVs now account for around half of all global car sales while also being the second-largest contributor to increased global CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2018, producing almost 1 billions tonnes of CO2 in 2022 alone. In 2022 the global rise in SUVs was also responsible for a third of the increase in global oil demand and, If SUVs were a country, they would be the sixth most polluting in the world.  Any potential environmental benefits of electrification were cancelled out by increased vehicle size and the rampant advertising that saw them come to dominate the market. In fact, emissions from the motor sector could have fallen 30% more between 2010 and 2022 if car sizes hadn’t grown.

Advertising polluting products has major consequences. But there are also more insidious fossil fuel tactics at hand.

Highlighting Richard Edelman’s long history of greenwashing the fossil fuel industry with Tolmeia Gregory, Cannes Lions 2023. Photo by Jake Randall.

Fossil fuel companies don’t need to advertise their products, because they’ve successfully created global economic systems that rely on them. What they do need, however, is to maintain their social license. Despite the vast power they wield, there are simply more of us than there are oil and gas CEOs. If we all rose up to challenge them, they’d be in deep trouble.

And so comes the tactic of convincing the masses fossil fuel titans are ‘part of the solution’. Fossil fuel adverts are filled with wind turbines and solar panels, conveniently leaving out the fact that oil and gas producers account for only 1% of total clean energy investment globally. They work with advertising and PR agencies across the world, creating images of themselves as major builders of renewables; all the while pursuing more risky extraction, racking up Indigenous and human rights violations with abandon, cosying up to oppressive regimes, and profiting from genocides.

And then there’s the sponsorships. Look across the world of sport and you’ll find fossil fuel companies sponsoring elite international competitions including tennis, skiing, football, rugby, cycling, running and golf (to name a few). Saudi Aramco keeps rapidly buying sporting teams and competitions like a hoarder collecting everything they find at the local car boot sale. And, despite major activism leading to many major cultural institutions dropping fossil fuel sponsorship, mega coal producer Adani and Equinor – the company behind the Rosebank oil field – sponsor galleries at London’s Science Museum, with BP sponsoring their STEM leadership programme and agreeing the ‘largest greenwashing deal in history’ with the British Museum too. There’s also the less obvious targets, such as The Old Vic’s partnership with Royal Bank of Canada, the largest fossil fuel financier in the world, or Sadler’s Wells partnering with Barclays, who are both a fossil fuel funder and a target of the BDS campaign due to relentless profiteering from the genocide of Palestinians.

Me dancing for BP or not BP? protest against BP sponsorship of the Scottish ballet in 2021. The deal with BP was terminated 3 months later.

All of these tactics serve one purpose: to get you to associate these names with positive thoughts. Instead of thinking of the tens of thousands dead in Gaza when you see the name Barclays, they want you to think of beautiful dancers. Instead of mass corruption, alleged fraud and crushed Indigenous rights across India and Australia, Adani simply becomes the word before your favourite new Science Museum gallery. These sponsorships don’t come from a place of goodwill, they provide a return on investment. Every positive association with their brand is another day these fossil fuel giants are allowed to continue business as usual, hurtling us into climate catastrophe and harming countless ordinary people along the way. We can’t let it continue any longer.

That’s where my work comes in. I’m lucky to work with campaigns such as Badvertising, BP or not BP? Culture Unstained and Clean Creatives to tackle this from many angles. Clean Creatives has a pledge agencies and creatives can sign, vowing not to work with fossil fuel clients. Culture Unstained campaigns on fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture venues, while BP or not BP? takes direct action in creative ways to bring these issues to light. Badvertising, whose team I joined most recently, campaigns for a tobacco-style ban on high carbon sponsorship in sport, and high carbon advertising full stop.

BP or not BP? protest at the British Museum. Photo by Ron Fassbender

Because here’s the good news: we have a precedent for doing this. Over 14 arts and cultural venues have dropped fossil fuel sponsorships in the last decade, and all of them remain open and thriving. There was a time when people were told the sports industry would collapse without sponsorship from tobacco companies, but sport remains alive and well today. Plus, countries that implemented these bans first saw steep declines in smoking almost immediately.

It’s true that we live in a fossil fuel economy, and it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve a truly just transition. But it’s also true that banning advertising of the things that are burning the planet fastest is a no-brainer. Stop advertising and behaviour change can take place. Change behaviour, and policy change follows. We’ve seen success before, which should give us hope that we can see it done again.