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Over the past year, conversation has picked up on U.S. shores about how the business world can operate as a better steward of the climate.

Ad agencies and holding companies have joined the chorus, declaring commitments to reach net carbon neutrality, transfer to renewable energy and create carbon offsets to future proof their operations. After all, Gen Z is more conscious of the climate emergency than any generation before it, and this industry thrives off of young talent.

Of the major players, WPP and Publicis have both promised to reach net zero emissions by 2030. IPG has ambitions to reach the same goal by 2040 while sourcing 100% renewable electricity by 2030 and publicly reporting global energy and emissions data. Dentsu met a 2015 goal to reach 100% renewable electricity globally (in applicable markets, that is) in 2020. Omnicom has set a more incremental goal to reach 20% renewable energy by 2023.

The desire to do more is there, as 76% of marketers agree that the industry needs to do more to help reduce carbon emissions, and nine in 10 marketers believe they have a responsibility to reduce carbon emissions, according to research released from sustainable ad tech platform GoodLoop this week. 

This is progress, for sure. But it’s also in conflict with truth that these same agencies and PR firms continue to work with fossil fuel polluters to craft their public narratives – and, in many cases, greenwash.

Timed to Climate Week, Clean Creatives and Comms Declare dropped their second F-List on Monday, making transparent which agencies are servicing climate-harming clients and how. The list calls out more than 230 agencies and all of the big holding companies, as well as PR giant Edelman, and includes detailed case studies of their involvement in greenwashing efforts for clients such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and even Saudi Aramco.  

While some see the F-List as a public shaming, the goal is to create transparency that can lead to action, Duncan Meisel, executive director at Clean Creatives, told me.

“A lot of information about who does this work is not offered publicly on agency websites. A lot of URLs that used to represent this work have disappeared,” he said. “After 14 years of discussion, it’s time for action. That only comes when there is an honest assessment of the problem. Hopefully, we can provide that.”

Agencies maintain that by continuing to work with fossil fuel clients, they are helping them transition into greener businesses. In June CEO Mark Read defended WPP’s work with energy companies after climate activists stormed the holding company’s beach in Cannes, saying WPP needs to help these companies be “part of the solution.”

There is truth to the fact that fossil fuel giants donate lots of money to climate change research and advocacy, but that doesn’t outweigh the massive harm they are continuing to cause to our planet. According to Meisel, there’s no evidence that agency and PR work for fossil fuel companies is actually doing anything to benefit the environment.

“The result of that engagement has primarily been greenwashing,” he said.

The issue is nuanced and not all work that agencies do for oil companies is greenwashing. But as pressure from talent, clients and world leaders intensifies, agencies must justify their work with fossil fuel clients, which is inconsistent with their growing internal efforts to run more sustainable businesses.

As Meisel puts it: “If you ride your bike and make an ad for Saudi Aramco, you are not part of the climate solution.”

 

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