What we’ve learned about adland’s attitude to climate change

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It’s our business to sprinkle pixie dust on our clients’ images and help them put their best foot forward.

But when it comes to climate claims, agencies themselves can be off with the pixies, allowing wishful thinking and spin to dominate their work while ignoring dangerous realities.

Greenwashing is a serious problem when it comes to tackling climate change. Former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore says greenwashing is a ‘significant and increasing risk’ to a successful transition away from fossil fuels.

With Australia’s export income and energy generation so reliant on coal and gas, Australia has a massive greenhouse gas problem and, subsequently a big greenwashing problem.

And adland is stuck right in the middle.

For the past two years, Comms Declare surveyed the top 200 agencies in Australia about their climate attitudes and actions.

What we found is that there is a genuine desire to be more environmentally friendly. But there is also a bit of denial and a lack of knowledge or action when it comes to reducing emissions.

For example, 78% of agencies think taking climate action is important to attract employees and 74% want to reach net zero.

On the other hand, 77% had worked for high-emissions clients in the past year and only 39% had a clear understanding of their own carbon footprint.

Most concerning to me was that none of the agencies working for highly polluting clients, such as energy companies or miners, were aware of their clients’ emissions. This is like promoting a tobacco company without caring how many people developed cancer from its products.

Greenhouse gas pollution is often expressed as Scope 1, Scope 2 or Scope 3 emissions. Scope 1 is direct emissions from your operations such as your air conditioner. Scope 2 is indirect emissions, like those emitted by your energy provider. Scope 3 is the emissions produced along your whole supply chain, including your customers and products.

For example, Che Proximity has recently worked for three energy companies: AGL, Jemena and Australian Gas Networks. These clients are responsible for at least 44, 306, 963 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, or 9% of Australia’s total emissions. These are CHEP’s Scope 3 emissions.

The ads for the companies don’t show climate impacts. They portray the companies as being innovative and modern. They argue that gas is clean, cheap and reliable. This is total nonsense.

Burning gas releases harmful substances including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde. Gas is mainly methane, a highly potent and major cause of global warming, which must be phased out if we are to have a safe climate. In addition, natural gas prices have been steadily increasing in Australia and our supply is finite – it is not renewable – it will run out. And 83% of AGL’s energy is produced by burning coal, not the wind turbines in their ads.

So, I argue that Che Proximity (among many others) is helping clients extract, sell and burn more gas, oil and coal. They help clients to falsely portray themselves as the solution to the global warming that they are actually helping to create. This is not consistent with the path we need to be on for a safe climate.

Young people, those who will suffer most thanks to us burning fossil fuels today, are increasingly wary about working on these accounts.

Our survey of people in the industry aged under 30 found that 91% think climate is the most, or one of the most important issues and 73% are reluctant to work for greenhouse gas polluters. In addition, 70% want to work at a company that is more climate friendly.

Clearly this is an issue that agencies must urgently grapple with.

Fortunately, some are. For the second year we have named Benedictus Media as the country’s most climate-friendly agency. They are already net zero. They choose green suppliers, buy second hand and recycle, then offset the emissions they can’t eliminate. They do not work with clients that compromise their ethos.

Also doing outstanding work is Republic of Everyone, Alchemy One and Leo Burnett – the highest-ranked large agency.

We know this is the crucial decade for climate action. Every additional rise in temperature has catastrophic consequences for our health, environment and futures. Fossil fuels are linked to more than eight million deaths a year, the same as tobacco. Additionally, the largest study of its kind has found that climate change is linked to five million deaths a year.

William “Bill” Bernbach, founder of DDB, famously stopped doing cigarette advertising after the US Surgeon General linked smoking to cancer. He said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

How much are your principles worth?

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