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Walking the Talk
Making a Clean Break from Fossil Fuels

Collectively, the communications industry can be a catalyst for change; and it’s our hope that we can use our power to focus on climate solutions, clean energy and promoting initiatives that help us carve a just transition and path forward.

An unforeseen hurricane that took dozens of lives and inflicted untold economic and physical damage in Mexico. A scabies outbreak in Malawi. Record heat waves across the globe. Communities worldwide are suffering the loss and costs caused by climate change every day. Consumers, understandably, increasingly expect not only their governments and elected officials to address climate change but their favorite brands, too. This was a hot topic at Climate Week 2023 — including the push for marketing and communications agencies to sign the Clean Creatives Pledge, committing to not work with fossil fuel companies or their interests that stand to worsen this crisis.

For any organization, considering the Pledge needs to be about more than optics. Agencies need to ask themselves a simple question: What type of work do they want to do to help solve the climate crisis and which clients do they want to partner with to achieve that goal? Choosing not to amplify the false narrative that we can continue to burn fossil fuels without consequences is the strongest, most direct lever we have to contribute to change. Communications agencies are in a unique position because aligning around these values increasingly matters to their clients, too. Consumer research bears this out: 82 percent of shoppers want a brand’s value to align with their own; and they’re willing to act on it — with three-quarters of surveyed shoppers saying they have parted ways with a brand over a conflict in values. A brand can’t meet its consumers’ expectations around climate change without holding their communications and marketing agencies to that standard, as well.

We have entered an era of increased transparency and understanding around the drivers of the climate crisis, and corporations are starting to learn from other industries and movements about how to scale impact. The concept of fossil fuel divestment is a great example of activists following the money to tackle climate impact and push investors to move capital out of the fossil fuel industry. Only recently have leading companies such as Seventh Generation started to pioneer methodologies to apply a similar lens, exploring how every dollar spent impacts the climate across all their financial relationships — including who they work with for marketing and public relations support. Savvy consumers are also quick to uncover and call out brands that make commitments to address climate change but whose receipts tell a different story.

At the Purpose Center of Excellence, a collaborative effort between sister Stagwell agencies Allison and Headstand, we’re seeing more and more clients asking us about connections to fossil fuels. Why? Because they can’t achieve their clean commitments or authentically demonstrate progress to stakeholders if they’re working with partner agencies representing and helping to grow the fossil fuel industry. It becomes clearer with each passing year: The marketing community needs to step up its efforts to meet expectations and drive change.

That’s why, this fall, Allison became the largest communications agency to sign the Clean Creatives Pledge. The Purpose Center of Excellence is where clients including Ceres and the We Mean Business Coalition have turned to accelerate the just transition to a climate-stable economy through economic action and where organizations and brands including Stonyfield, the Goldman Environmental Prize and Seventh Generation have looked to tell their stories of leading climate impact. We’re the group of brand-builders and communications executives who have helped shape the business narrative at COP, and who have helped investors hold industry leaders accountable for reducing emissions and protecting fresh water around the world. In short, we knew we needed to be the change we want to see in the industry.

First, we examined our values and what we stand for as agency teams. We’re driven by values-based leadership and understand how communications decisions have exponential potential to affect communities and the environment. We also recognize that climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing society and our collective future and that curbing environmental effects by limiting fossil fuels is better for our health, economy and communities.

We also considered our stakeholders’ convictions. Our own clients’ questions factored in, as did the ethics of our own people: Creatives across the industry are leaving agencies due to assignments that clash with their closely held beliefs.

But most importantly, we identified an authenticity issue — one that is perhaps unique to the field of communications. While other industries may be able to partner with fossil fuel companies to help them transition to alternatives — assuming this is done in good faith — communications professionals run the risk of greenwashing. Good communicators always strive to avoid greenwashing; but its ongoing proliferation is problematic. The number of Europe and North America-headquartered companies involved in an ESG-risk incident rose 43 percent over the last year, and that number was 70 percent for financial institutions — half of which involved oil and gas activities.

Communicators have a responsibility to avoid perpetuating the myth that the world needs to rely on fossil fuels, but it’s up to each agency to determine the most authentic actions through which to engage and drive change. Collectively, the communications industry can be a catalyst for change; and it’s our hope that we can use our power to focus on climate solutions, clean energy and promoting initiatives that help us carve a just transition and path forward.