Coalition Calls on Marketing and PR Firms to Stop Fueling the Climate Crisis

It's asking agencies to make a pledge refusing to work for climate-wrecking industries.

Chris Conway / Getty Images

As evidenced by Shell Oil’s fluffy sounding net-zero pledges—and the accompanying social media ads touting car charging and solar panels—the fossil fuel industries fund one of the largest and most sophisticated PR and marketing operations on the planet. And regardless of whether you believe carbon footprints are a sham or not, it’s clear they are very keen to frame the discourse around climate in their favor. Broadly speaking, this means a combination of: 

It’s all pretty much textbook disinformation. And if the number of lawmakers insisting energy companies have “a seat at the table” is anything to go by, that disinformation continues to be working as planned. 

The effort is meeting with resistance, however. And while campaigners can and do call out fossil fuel companies lies and deceit directly, including a growing number of individuals relentlessly trolling their social media efforts, these people face a somewhat tricky conundrum: It’s hard to shame a company that is 100% invested in the fossil-fueled status quo. While protests and pickets and letter writing may put a small dent in their social license to operate, and also minimize their ability to recruit talent, oil companies are oil companies and coal companies are coal companies. There’s a limit to how far we can push them to change. 

A new campaign, however, takes a different tack. 

Clean Creatives is a coalition of marketing and PR professionals who are asking agencies to pledge to refuse work for climate-wrecking industries. Specifically, those involved in the extraction, processing, transportation, or sale of oil, gas, or coal; utilities generating more than 50% of their energy from fossil fuels; or companies that play an active role in funding fossil fuel infrastructure. (Also on the target list are industry front groups and non-profits advancing the agenda of the fossil fuel industries.) 

In an effort to spread the message, the campaign group has released what it calls “The F List”—meaning 90 marketing and PR agencies that are actively working on behalf of fossil fuel companies and their allies. Unsurprisingly, that list includes prominent industry leaders including WPP, Ogilvy, and Edelman. 

It’s a super interesting campaign tactic, and I suspect it could work. For years, my day job has been in branding and marketing. Whether I was running my own agency, or now working in a position where I regularly hire creative partners, what I’ve learned is that the industry loves to highlight itself as a responsible, forward-thinking, and fun place to work. Recently, that has included some not insignificant efforts to clean house in terms of the direct impact of companies own operations. Here’s how Clean Creatives describes one such effort: 

“On Earth Day 2021, holding company giant WPP pledged to reach net zero across all of its operations, going so far as to account for the energy used to run banner ads across the internet and develop plans to power them with renewable energy, or offset the carbon impact. This extensive, detailed plan will account for reductions of 5.4 mt of carbon annually by 2025 across the entire group of agencies.”

As Clean Creatives also point out, however, the impact of flying to a few client meetings or running InDesign on a Mac is going to pale into insignificance when compared to work that actively advances fossil fuel consumption, or helps to stave off legislative solutions to the climate crisis: 

“WPP maintains a long list of fossil fuel aligned clients, most prominently BP in Ogilvy, Shell at WundermanThompson, and Exxon in both Hill + Knowlton and Burson Cohn and Wolfe. These fossil fuel majors account for 423 times the carbon impact of WPP’s operations. This gap in WPP’s pledge means that generating sales increases of .2% across these clients would immediately wipe out the impact of WPP’s net zero plan.”

This is all very interesting to me. As part of my recent book project, I explored the role of shame and shaming in oppositional campaigns against corporations. One of the things I learned is that targeting the "enablers" can help to both isolate the main target—making it harder for them to do their business—and also set new social norms within the wider business world. 

I look forward to seeing where this goes.