Jamie Henn, a co-founder of the climate group 350.org, had for a long time noticed a gap in climate advocacy that many had overlooked: while the fossil fuel industry pours money into ad campaigns, much of the climate movement simply doesn’t have the resources to do that work.
Inspired to change that, Henn launched Fossil Free Media to give public relations and communications support to grassroots groups taking on the fossil fuel industry and campaigning for climate justice.
Fossil Free Media is also trying to change the wider PR and advertising industry through its Clean Creatives campaign, pressuring agencies to break their ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Henn spoke with the Guardian about the power of communications, why we’ve entered an era of true climate greenwashing, and the damage advertising firms can cause.
Why did you decide to launch the Clean Creatives campaign?
As we were setting up Fossil Free Media to try to push forward our own messaging and priorities on the need to end fossil fuels, we realized that we weren’t going to be effective if at the same time the fossil fuel industry was able to pour tens of millions of dollars behind its own propaganda efforts. So we had to find a way to simultaneously throw a wrench in the gears of big polluters’ propaganda while trying to get out our own messaging. Clean Creatives emerged from that instinct.
It also came just out of a sense of frustration. Every time climate activists launch a campaign, here comes a multimillion-dollar effort to push back: fake websites, front groups or fake studies about how fossil fuel divestment will destroy the economy.
Clean Creatives was our way to try to think about how we can begin to dismantle the fossil fuel industry’s ability to spread disinformation. This is our attempt to go after the wordsmiths and creatives that greenwash the industry.
It’s an effort that really tries to appeal to people within the advertising and PR world to say, look, you probably got into this for reasons of wanting to do creative work or wanting to make the world a better place. But creativity has consequences: if you are making a flashy ad that’s greenwashing a fossil fuel company, it doesn’t matter how creative it is, or how pretty it is, it’s doing real damage.
What are you asking PR and ad agencies to do?
We are asking them to take a pledge to stop working with fossil fuel clients. More than 100 PR and ad agencies have signed.
Many agencies have already pledged not to work with tobacco companies. Fossil fuels kill more people than cigarettes each year, so if you’re going to draw a red line on smoking, you should certainly do the same on pollution.
We also have a pledge for individuals within those agencies to decline future contracts with fossil fuel companies, trade associations or front groups, because we know that a lot of people who work in huge multinational conglomerates would not be able to get their entire agency to switch overnight. We want to build a movement within the industry of individual creatives and freelancers.
Then, finally, we have a pledge for clients. We know that one of the ways to move a big ad agency is to get their top clients, who may care deeply about sustainability and see it as part of their business plan, to really send the signal that they don’t want to work with an agency that is also working with fossil fuels.
I think these just aren’t questions that companies are asking of their PR and ad firms, even if it’s something they ask of their suppliers or other contracts.
Have you had any fight back from the fossil fuels industry about the campaign?
Early on the [oil industry lobby group] American Petroleum Institute really pushed back and gave some quotes saying it was outrageous and an attack on their ability to get our message out there, that somehow it’s an infringement on their free speech rights.
The more sophisticated pushback that we’re seeing from companies like BP is: “Hey, wait a second, we’re trying to make ads that highlight the importance of the transition to clean energy. What’s the problem with BP running ads about wind turbines and why climate action is so important?” That’s pushback we get from some of the agencies as well.
But these ads are political propaganda designed explicitly to try to block the type of real action that we need. Oil companies are trying to act as if they’re on top of the problem, they’re dealing with it, they care, so that they can avoid the type of public pressure and ultimately political regulation that would truly force them to change at the pace that we need them to.
The people they need to be working with are the engineers, lawyers and others who are figuring out how to restructure these companies to be part of the clean energy economy. Not PR and ad people who figure out how to make them look good while they’re continuing to pollute the planet.
We are in the era of true climate greenwashing. We’re seeing these companies pretend that they’re part of the solution. And I think it’s so important for the next decade for people to not believe the problem is solved when they hear oil companies saying they care about the climate crisis but instead to ask: are you still drilling for oil? Or, have you developed a new business plan?
What are the most effective things that companies can do about the climate crisis?
One is really committing to a clear zero emissions plan, not just net zero. Making sure that they are going to be compliant with the Paris climate agreement and have a plan to transition over the next decade is essential.
But just as important is getting involved in political pressure. Supporting grassroots advocates, where companies can, but also really getting involved in the political process is really important.
We’ve heard time and again from senators, including the Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, that they’re not seeing Apple, Google or Facebook put any lobbying muscle behind the fight against climate change, despite all their grandiose statements on climate action.
Specifically for Clean Creatives, people should call up their advertising and PR shop and ask them if they’re working with fossil fuel companies. That doesn’t mean you have to drop them tomorrow, we understand that there are contracts and people have pre-existing relationships. But what we want to do is really spark that conversation.