The Sustainability Channel in association withLBB
Sustainability x Advertising: “Without the Work the Ad Industry is Doing on Behalf of Fossil Fuel Clients, It Is Much Harder for Putin to Carry Out This War”
London, UK
Clean Creatives director Duncan Meisel and Amélie Lambert discuss the growing pressure on greenwashing agencies to ditch polluting clients, how ethical agencies will win the talent war and why the history of tobacco shows system-wide change is possible
In January 2022, over 450 climate scientists signed an open letter to the advertising and PR industries, calling out the creative greenwashers spinning the truth for fossil fuel giants. While greenwashing has been the industry’s dirty not-so-secret secret for decades, it’s getting ever harder to sweep it under the carpet.

Clean Creatives is one organisation that’s galvanising people within the industry to change - and helping to ensure that the agencies who work for the world’s highest polluters can’t hide. Their much talked about ‘F List’ is testament to that. As the war for talent heats up, and other clients try to transition to more sustainable and ethical business practices, an agency’s decision to refuse money from the fossil fuel sector could become a deciding factor.

Duncan Meisel is Director at Clean Creatives and, with a background in communications for climate NGOs, he’s seen the counterproductive impact of PR and advertising campaigns on behalf of the fossil fuel industry up close. And zooming out, he sees a great deal of interconnectivity between the industry’s work on behalf of the oil giants and many of the other social and political ills of our day, including Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

In this first installment of our ‘Sustainability x Advertising’ series, Amélie Lambert catches up with Duncan to get a grip on the true impact of the industry’s misuse of creativity in support of these polluters and to find out why pressure is growing on agencies that choose to take dirty dollars.


Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives

Amélie> This interview series sets to explore the different initiatives and challenges that industry activists or changemakers, like yourself, are working on and how you do that. The aim of this conversation is to connect the dots and address our dependence on fossil fuels as a society, and then as an industry. 
Let's go through the WHY (you exist), WHAT (challenges you are working on) and HOW (you do that). What is the purpose of Clean Creatives?

Duncan> My personal background is in doing communications for climate NGOs. Every time I was part of a grassroots movement that was trying to do something good in the context of climate change, there were always well-run PR and ad campaigns trying to convince the world to do something bad. And the work that advertising and PR firms do for fossil fuel companies is one of the biggest barriers to climate action. It's the thing that persuades the public and policymakers to avoid taking the steps that scientists say we need to take in order to solve climate change, which is to primarily reduce and then eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
Our perspective at Clean Creatives, comes to the fact that three quarters of global climate emissions come from the energy sector. Our goal is to get advertising and PR professionals to come together and refuse to work for the companies that are most responsible for the problem of climate change, which is coal, oil and gas companies.
As the biggest part of the problem and the biggest greenwashers, they're the people with the most to lose when we make the energy transition. Our take is that the creative work that advertising and PR professionals do for fossil fuel companies is what keeps them able to persuade the public to avoid taking the action we need, which we know would benefit everybody except the people who are large shareholders in major polluting companies.
There's a lot of work in the advertising industry that is going to support climate solutions. There are lots of groups that find ways to support clean energy and to get people excited about electric vehicles, and so forth. I think the reality is that most of that works. Audiences like those things, if you ask them point blank about it. The problem isn't necessarily persuading people about the good, it's getting people to stop holding on to the bad. The ads that are run on behalf of fossil fuel are effective in persuading the public that Shell, BP, Exxon or Chevron are part of the solution when they're actually the main cause of the problem.

Amélie> If you start from the assumption that most people are well-intentioned, how would you highlight  what is actually bad? For example, until fairly recently, people did not realise that pensions were very big investors in fossil fuels. A person could have moved to a clean energy supplier and shifted a lot of their habits, but meanwhile, their pension turns out to be a massive blind spot. So how do you highlight those blind spots?

Duncan> What we're doing is we're trying to highlight the specific relationships between agencies, their fossil fuel clients, and the work that those fossil fuel clients are actually doing in the world. If you take a careful look at any of the annual reports of fossil fuel clients, you'll find that it represents a very different company than the one that they sell to their ad agencies, and then the ad agencies sell to the world.
So Shell, for instance, a lot of people say is one of the more advanced companies when it comes to climate solutions. But in reality, more than 95% of their annual capital expenditures are going back into building more fossil fuel infrastructure that we literally do not need. That only is serving the interests of climate pollution. So what we're trying to do is highlight those specific connections, identify where those relationships have resulted in misleading communication that isn't telling the public the truth about what these companies do. And then try to create professional pressure from staff within those companies, from their peers, from their other clients that aren't fossil fuel companies to get them to stop doing that misleading work.

Amélie> Let’s talk about your release of the F List last year. What was the reception overall?

Duncan> The biggest thing that the industry needs is transparency. A lot of this work is as hidden as possible. So at first it’s, of course, not particularly well received.
When we put out the F List, we said: “Here's what we know.” It wasn't anything more than that. After breaking that silence, now, people who are thinking about their next job, their first job, or who they want to hire, can go to that and make their own decisions about the relationships they would invest in. Do I really want this as part of my creative supply chain? Would I want a company that has these nasty and unsavoury relationships that they clearly want to hide? I think of it as an effort of transparency. Our hope is that people receive it as a service.

Amélie> I suppose you welcomed the remarkable open letter from 450+ scientists who targeted the advertising sector - and not only the big holding companies but also some of the big sustainable brands on their roster, to pressure them to urgently dump fossil fuel clients. What do you think was the reception of this, what has its impact been?

Duncan> Every agency that has some sort of Climate Plan - which is most of them - say that they want their business to be grounded in the scientific reality of climate change. And if that's the case, you should listen to the scientists who study this most closely. What they say is that you should not be doing this work for fossil fuel companies, that it is a threat.
That, I think, is the biggest impact from that letter - that it's not just a nice consumer facing thing about helping this company reach their audience, you're actually undermining the work of the people who have been most committed to this issue for the longest time. That is something that should weigh heavily on agencies that are continuing to hold these clients.

Amélie> Let’s talk a little bit about this very eloquent article for The Guardian by Peter Kalmus, titled “I'm a climate scientist. Don’t Look Up captures the madness I see every day”. The hard part is communicating sustainability effectively. He translates and explains that so well, but also positions it within the bigger context of our dependence on the fossil fuel business. In the article he says: “We also need stories that show humanity responding rationally to the crisis. A lack of technology isn't what's blocking action. Instead, humanity needs to confront the fossil fuel industry head on, accept that we need to consume less energy and to switch into full on emergency mode, the sense of solidarity and relief we'd feel once this happens, if it happens would be game changing for our species.” What would you say to that statement?

Duncan> Kalmus is one of the best climate communicators out there. I think he's exactly right. To me, what's happening in Ukraine really highlights this problem. You have a company like Chevron, which advertises itself as a ‘human energy company’ but is refusing to end their operations in Russia and is putting money into the Russian government's pockets, so that they can execute an illegal war and kill civilians. Which is about the most anti human thing you could do.
It's very striking to me how quickly universal public disdain can impact a company's business model. BP wrote down $20 billion of assets in Russia, because they realised that it was unsustainable, because the public outcry was so intense. And that's why they are spending money desperately to avoid the issue of climate change. They don't want the public to be unified and focused in this condemnation of their business. So to me, I think what happened in Ukraine really highlighted how powerful the public can be and how valuable the brand reputation of these companies is, which is why they spend so much money on advertising.

Amélie> Taking this further… Brands have been under great scrutiny regarding their responses to Covid, the climate emergency, George Floyd's murder, mental health and many other sustainability-related issues. And now the war in Ukraine. When you connect the dots and if you take a bird's eye view, could one argue the advertising industry is inadvertently funding the Ukrainian war through working for or green/good washing fossil fuel clients?

Duncan> Without the work the advertising industry is doing on behalf of fossil fuel clients, it is much harder for Putin to carry out this war. Without the social legitimacy of big companies like Exxon, BP, that have been extremely heavily invested in Russia for decades, they have a much narrower and more difficult road to put that money into Putin's pocket.
The deals they struck in Russia are terrible for the planet. They're terrible for the Russian people. They're inexcusable from a moral and political stance, but because they have all this legitimacy that's propped up by nice advertisements, great PR campaigns and the creative work that professionals have done for them, that can continue.
The other thing I just want people to think about is to imagine a world where you're not doing this work for fossil fuel companies. What's different? And I think what's different is, those companies have much less room in the public to do the worst parts of their business practice, it's that much harder for them to continue avoiding sanctions. Exxon and BP and Shell all lobbied heavily the United States government to eliminate sanctions against Russia. That is the impact that they have. What if we didn't do this? What would they not be able to do anymore? And the answer is, they would not be able to do the worst and most dangerous forms of their businesses.

Amélie> You've taken us to the future, how about going to the past? Change can be hard at the best of times. But we've already done it all before, with the tobacco industries. What are your thoughts on that and what have we learned from that experience?

Duncan> In the early 1970’s, the United States banned advertising by tobacco companies on television and radio. Starting in 1974, the consumption of cigarettes has declined every single year in America. Advertising has a direct impact on their ability to not only sell their product, but to obstruct government action that limits the use of their product.
So they needed that communication in order to persuade their public that their product was valuable, it was important, it was culturally relevant. And when it wasn't in their lives in the same way, more people were more open to things like banning smoking in restaurants, banning smoking on aeroplanes, raising tobacco taxes. The power of the communications industry is to provide that cultural weight. And this was a profound change in the American public's consumption habits and the economy. But it only happened when that advertising wasn't a daily part of their lives anymore.

Amélie> Storytelling is such an intrinsic part of who we are and what it means to be human, it holds immense power. What's lacking at the moment? And how do you think storytelling can change at a systemic level, as far as the advertising industry is concerned? 

Duncan> I think the kinds of stories that we focus on are the ones that make it seem like the energy transition is too costly, that it means a substantial reduction in quality of life. And I think that allowing people to see the ways that it will enrich their lives, bring them closer to their friends, their family, their community, is really important.
You can see in a lot of their advertisements that oil and gas companies are trying to deeply embed themselves in values of community and of diversity. They're just trying to make themselves look like they are a vital part of our communities when they're not. And that's the thing we need to change.

Amélie> Speaking of stories about the cost of the energy transition, some might argue it’s all very well to advocate for dumping fossil fuel clients and other high polluters, but that transition may result in a lot of pain, job losses etc. How would you respond to that argument?

Duncan> I think agencies need to look very seriously at what happens to their bottom line if they do not dump their fossil fuel clients. Agencies could end up with very large risks, and relatively small upsides. There are over 1800 active lawsuits and regulatory actions underway worldwide concerning climate inaction, many of those focused on misleading public communication, and those cases carry large risks and unforeseen costs for the agencies involved with fossil fuel companies. Also, the fossil fuel industry is facing an exodus of young talent out of jobs connected to their industry - US degrees issued in mining and petroleum engineering have dropped nearly in half in two years - and I think agencies that work for those companies should ask whether they are next to face a talent exodus.

Amélie> How can clients use influence particularly through their procurement criteria? 

Duncan> I think if environmentally-driven brands applied the same standards of integrity, honesty, and transparency to their agencies that they do to their suppliers, they would quickly arrive at the conclusion that it's important to leave fossil fuel-linked agencies. Instead of only applying procurement standards to farmers and other suppliers, brands should also apply standards to their agencies that are running greenwashing ads for the world's biggest polluters.

Amélie> What role can B Corp certification play in transitioning agencies away from fossil fuel clients? I notice that there are some B Corps on your F-list!

Duncan> There is no excuse for a B-Corp certified agency to work with fossil fuel clients, it's simply incompatible with the values of the movement. If an agency is going to go through the extensive, detailed certification process to achieve B-Corp status, they should also take the simple step of ending work for fossil fuel companies.

Amélie> If we now move to a more granular level within the advertising industry. If I'm an agency creative or work in production, or whichever part of the industry I may sit in, what can I do from my position to help with the challenges you're working on?

Duncan> The first thing to remember if you're a professional is that you're not alone in your feelings of apprehension towards polluting work. We’ve found that it's always the case that if you have those feelings, there will be coworkers who feel the same. Thus, the most important thing that we encourage people to do is to reach out to their immediate coworkers and see how they feel about this, to ask the question: “do we think we should be working for polluting companies?” When that happens, a lot of doors open up. You'll find allies and you will be part of this growing movement. There's 300 agencies that have taken our pledge, so we're really proud of that. You're not alone, keep that in mind. The answer is always a little different, depending on your company, but the first step that everyone should take is to say something about it.

Amélie> You mentioned 300 companies have now signed your pledge, from just 70 when you started less than a year ago - that must feel amazing! If you had to, how would you define success for Clean Creatives?

Duncan> The way I see it is, someone will take the money. There's some agency out there in the world that will work with the worst polluters on Earth. That's the reality. The question is: will it be the most talented people, will it be the best connected, will it be the ones with the most resources? Every agency makes the case to their clients, they have something unique to offer. Do you want your unique offering to be serving the worst polluters on Earth? That's the question everybody has to answer. I'm really optimistic that we’re moving to a world where smart, creative, progressive, thoughtful people in the industry refuse to work with polluters. This is where those big polluters have less influence and less power. That's the world that we're envisioning and moving towards.

Amélie> As you said, highlighting those connections is a very powerful way to make this happen once people are aware. Is there anything recent in advertising, or sustainability or both, that you're really excited or inspired by?

Duncan> The thing that I take the most heart from is that we just don't need the bad stuff anymore. It's the impact of stories from the International Energy Agency that say, we don't need to build more fossil fuel projects to meet our global energy gains. What a relief that is!? We don't have to do it anymore. We're not stuck in this position, which we were for decades, of needing more fossil fuels in order to meet our transportation needs or our heating needs. The fact that we simply do not need it anymore, is such a wonderful development. That to me is the best development and the most encouraging one.

Amélie> What would be your main actionable takeaway for the Little Black Book audience?

Duncan> Sign the creators pledge!  Say that you won't be a part of fossil fuel work anymore. And if you are a brand, say that you won't hire agencies that have fossil fuel clients.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash
More News from LBB Editorial
Awards and Events
Nayla Tueni on 90 Years of Annahar
5 minutes with...
5 Minutes with… Jeff Dack
Work from LBB Editorial
Window, not a Wall
Unicorn Kingdom
GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland