How media agencies are tackling greenwashing

As companies face growing pressure to come clean about their true environmental impact, the marketing industry is having to take a long, hard look at its role in corporate greenwashing

Things are about to get a lot tougher for companies that indulge in greenwash – and for the marketing agencies that support them in their deceitful ways.

Conscious that the world’s gaze is turning to the UK as the United Nations prepares to start its COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the government’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, has published a Green Claims Code for businesses. This guidance is designed to address the authority’s own findings that 40% of green claims made by companies online are misleading.

The Advertising Standards Authority has also signalled its intention to clamp down on greenwash, as it assesses the ad industry’s role in addressing the climate crisis. It is particularly interested in cutting through jargon, so that consumers can understand what advertisers actually mean when they use terms such as ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’.

This backlash against greenwash means that marketing agencies may have to make some tough decisions, as the pressure grows on them to refuse work that smacks of ecological sophistry.

Are the short-term revenue gains of working with oil and gas worth the loss of a wealth of future marketing talent?

According to Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of the Futerra agency, the marketing industry has largely kept out of the firing line regarding its own accountability for greenwashing. It has used the very skills that it’s known for to manage the narrative and bury its role as a cheerleader for the fossil-fuel industry, for instance. 

She believes that some agencies are no longer using advertising for its intended use: to influence and inform consumer choice. Instead, “they’re trying to influence us as citizens. They are lobbying through advertising.”

Duncan Meisel is campaign director of Clean Creatives, an alliance of marketing professionals who “believe that fossil-fuel clients represent a threat to our shared future”. Earlier in his career, he felt the full force of the oil industry’s marketing might when he was working with NGOs on campaigns to spread awareness of the climate crisis and its causes. 

“Every time we tried to do something that was good, there would be really well-funded and well-run PR and advertising campaigns advocating for what was bad,” Meisel recalls.

But now Clean Creatives has hit back by publishing The F-List, a roster of the 90 biggest marketing agencies known to have clients in the fossil-fuel industry. 

This initiative is about “bringing transparency to an area that the advertising industry tries to hide”, Meisel explains. “The agencies that work for fossil-fuel companies aren’t particularly proud of it. For most part, they don’t share this information on their websites.”

Townsend agrees. “Our industry is terrible at transparency,” she says, adding that even the oil majors tend to be far more willing to talk about their activities than the agencies they hire are to discuss theirs.

In November 2020, Clean Creatives asked agencies to sign a pledge declaring that they would decline any work offered by fossil-fuel companies. More than 150 have since done so, many reporting that they had turned down opportunities to pitch for new business. 

“The question for agencies is: which side are we on?” Meisel says.

There is more pressure too from the Change Something, Change Everything campaign. Created by ATI, an alliance of Latin American marketing companies, with support from like-minded European businesses, this is challenging agencies to “stop selling carbon” and drop any accounts that promote the use of fossil fuels. 

“The story has to change,” says ATI member Marian Ventura, founder and CEO of the Done! agency in Buenos Aires. “As experts in connecting with the public, we have a major responsibility to act differently.”

Townsend believes there are three key factors that will, sooner or later: “squeeze all agencies that work with destructive clients”. The first concerns a fundamental generational change: the best young people entering the industry simply don’t want to work on oil and gas briefs.

“Are the short-term revenue gains of working with oil and gas worth the loss of a wealth of future marketing talent?” she says.

The second factor concerns the views of existing clients. Futerra is a pioneer of client disclosure reporting, in which marketing agencies list their sources of income. So far, more than 300 agencies have bought into the idea, bringing much-needed transparency to the industry, according to Townsend. But she adds that the biggest players have not followed suit, because they wouldn’t want any of the purpose-led clients on their books to know that they also do business with the fossil-fuel sector. 

Consumer-goods companies that have positioned themselves as offering sustainable solutions would be “very uncomfortable with being in that kind of company”, Townsend says. 

She adds that many such firms have strict policies to improve sustainability in their supply chains, yet they’re seeking “more transparency from smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa, say, than they’re asking from their global creative agencies”. Townsend believes that this situation is ripe for change. 

The third area is regulation. The local government of Amsterdam, for instance, has banned all billboard and poster ads promoting the use of fossil fuels in the city centre and on the subway system. France is set to follow suit next year, while similar moves are being discussed in Norway and several US states.

Meisel believes it will simply become too difficult for these companies to advertise effectively, with bans and limits on creativity – such as the need to disclose environmental data – making it harder for them to get their message across. 

Most of the proposed advertising bans would affect firms that make more than a certain percentage of their income from oil and gas. This is important, Meisel says, because it should make agencies that claim to represent the ‘green arm’ of an energy company think twice.

“It’s not responsible to be promoting an oil and gas major’s renewable products in a world where that company devotes 95% of its capital expenditure to new oil and gas,” he argues.

Even if agencies do decide to shun the fossil-fuel industry en masse, won’t the big players simply take the creative work in house, given that they have plenty of money to throw at the problem and marketing teams of their own?

Go ahead, says Townsend. “If they can’t work with the best agencies, with the best people and the best insights, doing it themselves is very much second best.”

Meisel agrees. “I think that would significantly diminish their ability to reach the public,” he says. “Their work would become more partisan, more marginalised and less effective.”