Duncan Meisel
Aug 28, 2023

Beyond greenwashing: B Corps' moral imperative to reject Big Oil

"It's hard to run an agency. Not every client you take on is going to be a passion project, still, no agency should be taking on fossil fuel clients, especially not the B Corps, and definitely not in the hottest year of human history," writes Clean Creatives' Duncan Meisel.

Photo: Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives
Photo: Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives

B Labs, which runs the B Corp certification, is caught in a very public debate about whether B Corp-certified agencies should provide marketing and PR services to fossil fuel corporations. As the executive director of Clean Creatives, a campaign that asks all agencies to end their relationships with fossil fuel polluters, I've encountered many of the questions that B Lab leaders are facing now in my conversations with ad industry leaders. These questions have very clear answers, and protecting the integrity of B Corp's status requires arriving at the correct ones.

In short, no advertising or PR agency should be working with fossil fuel companies during the hottest year in human history—but B Corps should have already made this decision. Fossil fuel companies knew how dangerous their products were decades ago, lied about it, and continue to not take action to solve the problem. This is incompatible with the values, purpose, and brand of B Labs, and I firmly believe when presented with the opportunity to improve their standards, they will.

One of the most common objections to dropping fossil fuel clients usually begins with something like this: To help these companies transition, we need to provide them with marketing services to communicate their clean energy goals.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this very common position in the industry, and mountains of evidence to support the opposite. Providing professional services to fossil fuels has never done anything to reduce their impact on the climate.

Decades of advertising and PR campaigns proclaiming that they are ready to change have only led fossil fuel companies to produce more coal, oil, and gas than ever before. Shell was running ads about "100% renewable energy plans" on Facebook just days after they told investors they were increasing their production of fossil fuels, and backing down from their Net Zero goals.

I encourage anyone tempted by this take to read fossil fuel companies' annual reports about their expanding investments in coal, oil, and gas exploration. Just 1% of cash spending by oil and gas companies is currently being spent on clean energy. If you think there is a fossil fuel industry-led transition underway, you are not living on the same burning planet as the rest of us.

The second objection tends to be concern about slippery slopes. If we reject fossil fuel companies, what about all the other companies that contribute to the climate crisis? What will there be left for us to work on?

I'm very sympathetic to this concern. It is hard to run an agency. Not every client you take on is going to be a passion project. But no CEO on planet Earth accepts every single pitch opportunity that hits their inbox. Everyone has a line—and it makes sense to draw a line that reflects the very well-documented behavior of fossil fuel companies.

The fossil fuel industry is the world's biggest polluter and the world's biggest greenwasher. If you can solve the problem of the fossil fuel sector, it becomes vastly easier to solve every other aspect of the climate challenge. Their goal is to make pollution profitable, which means that every polluting industry is propped up by the policies and practices they follow, and their fight against coordinated climate action.

Another way to look at this: In the safe climate future, we will need transportation. We will need food. We will need manufactured products. We will not need fossil fuels. That's a simple, straightforward line to draw. It may not be the last one—again, everyone has their own perspective on this, but it's one that should be universal at this point.

Last, I want to talk about the duty that some leaders feel to help the fossil fuel sector through a climate transition.

This may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to encourage fossil fuel companies to transition is to pledge not to work with them until their budgets and business plans actually reflect climate reality. This position provides you the most leverage, and the clearest incentives possible to create change. Everything else is a strategic and ethical quagmire.

After 40 years of deception, greenwashing, and more deception, it's time to put the onus on fossil fuel companies to make the change and take responsibility for the impact that advertising and PR has had. That's a fair line for any agency—particularly a B Corp—to make.

Duncan Meisel is the executive director for Clean Creatives. He helps advertisers drop fossil fuel clients. 

Campaign Asia

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