Signing up to industry initiatives that aim to drive collaboration on net zero and then publicly advocating for the opposite is exactly the sort of greenwashing that the industry needs to eradicate, argues Jake Dubbins, Managing Director at Media Bounty and co-founder of the Conscious Advertising Network.

Net zero marketing

This article is part of a series of articles from the WARC Guide to net zero marketing.

In the world of advertising we talk a lot about reach and frequency. Physical availability and mental availability. Long term brand building and short term activation. It is very clear that the net zero climate message is not reaching us with the frequency required to drive the short term climate action required to secure a long term liveable future.

Here is a quick reminder of where we are.

The goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The IPPC’s report in August 2021 stated ‘The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.’ UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it a ‘code red for humanity.’

Global warming is a ‘death sentence’ for island nations

In November at COP26 there were many memorable speeches from world leaders, activists and living saint, David Attenborough. But some of the most powerful words were spoken by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley who said that a two degree rise in temperature would be a "death sentence" for island nations, due to rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

Andrés González – sugar farmer, Paraguay, and Fairtrade regional board member told us prophetically ‘‘We have had wars for oil, for land. Imagine the wars if people are fighting for food.”

It's not just the scientists, leaders of island nations and farmers sounding the alarm. The International Energy Agency (IEA), an organisation set up to co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in the supply of oil, stated very clearly last year in its ‘Net Zero by 2050’ Roadmap that to reach net zero there should be ‘from today no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects.’

Some organisations haven’t really got their heads around this despite the frequency of the message. News UK’s Sun newspaper wrote a leader on February the 8th saying ‘We applaud Government for approving new oil and gas fields amid soaring energy bills’. The Sun’s editorial team appear to know more than the experts from the IEA and the IPCC. The Sun goes on to state, ‘Soaring energy bills should shortly sober up any remaining holdouts still drunk on utopian promises from COP26.’

The Mail on Sunday on 6th March gave over its pages to Nigel Farage who is launching a Net Zero Referendum campaign calling the UK’s net zero policies a ‘ruinous path’ without any ‘public debate’. The leader talks about a ‘Net Zero utopia’ and calls for ‘reopening the debate on fracking in this country.’ To be clear, Net Zero policies were very much part of the ‘debate’ at the last election. In fact one of Boris Johnson’s 6 Guarantees stated: ‘I guarantee to reach net zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution.’

According the Climate Action Tracker group, the pledges that were made at COP26 put the world on a pathway to 2.4 degrees of warming. So temperatures that now exceed the 2 degree ‘death sentence’ for small island nations where ACTUAL REAL PEOPLE LIVE are now drunken utopian promises.

I would hate to see what dystopia looks like.

Greenwashing is a form of misinformation, it must stop now

News UK and the Daily Mail & General Trust are proud members of the Advertising Association’s extremely laudable Ad Net Zero project. It is this double speak and hypocrisy that undermines the efforts of the advertising industry to reach net zero. Any media organisation, business, or individual is free to disagree with the scientific consensus and indeed policies that put us on a pathway to net zero. Signing up to industry initiatives that aim to drive collaboration on net zero and then publicly advocating for the opposite is exactly the sort of greenwashing that the industry needs to eradicate.

It is worth mentioning at this stage that the organisation I co-chair, the Conscious Advertising Network has removed a member over the last few years for non-compliance of two of six our manifestos. We feel very strongly that CAN cannot be used as a badging or purpose washing exercise.

These examples of greenwashing are done in plain sight and are advocating for the fossil fuelled status quo. The latest IPCC report released on the 28th February spoke to this status quo. Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of working group 2 of the IPCC says clearly “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.” And yet, within the IPCC report the “growth in misinformation” is called out as an attempt “to maintain the status quo by actors in positions of power in the face of rising social inertia for climate action.”

Greenwashing is a form of misinformation that aims to maintain the status quo.

A recent advertising campaign by Total Energies proudly proclaimed that the company was using ‘100% renewable energy for all its energy needs.’ The word ‘needs’ is the important one here. A quick dig on the website shows Total Energies energy mix for 2035 will be 64% coal, oil and gas. This is to ‘meet the 2 degree challenge.’ There is no mention of the 1.5 degree goal of Paris.

While Total Energies tell us that they are using 100% renewable energy for their needs, they are also planning in plain sight to use an energy mix to meet a temperature that is a ‘death sentence’ for island nations.

The ASA is beginning to take on the huge challenge of greenwashing. Innocent was rightly sanctioned after its advertising encouraged consumers to ‘fix up the planet’ by buying Innocent drinks. The bottles that Coca Cola owned Innocent sells in the UK contain 50% recycled plastic and 50% virgin material, not including the caps and labels.

This is clearly egregious.

It is far past time to deal with these issues head on.

A few tips for advertisers and agencies:

  1. Go all in on Ad Net Zero and get your team to take the Ad Net Zero Essentials certificate.
  2. Do not join Ad Net Zero if you are aiming to use it as a badging exercise in order to look like you are doing what is necessary but actually doing the opposite. Choose one or the other.
  3. All well intentioned industry initiatives whether it be in climate or anything else should review their criteria for accepting and keeping members who act against those initiatives and can bring those initiatives into disrepute.
  4. If you are an agency, do your due diligence on your clients. Ask them what their plan is for net zero. If they do not have a plan then do not take on the work. The agency I run, Media Bounty, has turned down work from well known Oil & Gas, Fast Fashion and pesticide brands on this basis.
  5. If you are a brand committed to net zero then ask your agency what their policy is working with other clients. Are you happy working with an agency that is advertising your brand but also furthering the interests of fossil fuels?
  6. Consider the lifestyles that you are representing in your advertising. Are they representative of a net zero future? Of a ‘liveable and sustainable future for all’ to quote the IPCC. The Purpose Disruptor’s Good Life 2030 project is a good place to start for inspiration. Consciously invest your media. Remove your investment from media that is platforming climate mis/disinformation. The Conscious Advertising Network has led a coalition of climate NGOs and misinformation to craft a common definition of climate misinformation - - implement this definition in your media buy.
  7. Support great climate content through your media. Fund creators, journalism and publishers who are telling the truth on net zero. Check your block lists. Is the word ‘climate’ and related words on there? Take them off. Make the effort and invest in conscious media planning rather than leave it to the machines.
  8. Act on the science. Ask yourself what part you will play in securing a liveable and sustainable future for yourself, your family, for your business, for all.

Further reading




Read more articles from the WARC Guide to net zero marketing.

Tackling media decarbonisation one plan at a time
Laura Wade and Susanna Pitts

50 Shades of Greenwashing
Oliver Feldwick

“Washed Green” or “Transparent Grey”? Understanding why honesty pays off in environmental communication
Giovanni Pino, Giampaolo Viglia, Rajan Nataraajan, Alessandro M. Peluso and Marco Pichierri
University of Studies, University of Portsmouth, Università della Valle d’Aosta (UNIVDA), Auburn University, University of Salento and University of Bari “Aldo Moro”

Why sustainability must embrace psychology
Andy Wilson and Paolo Mercado
Ogilvy Consulting, Asia

A year of the WFA Planet Pledge
Will Gilroy
World Federation of Advertisers