On the 5th of October 2022, Clean Creatives South Africa hosted a creatives meetup and panel discussion titled “The Climate is Changing, Is Advertising?” during Loeries Creative Week 2022 in Cape Town.
Creative industry professionals from advertising, PR and media companies were invited to engage in a discussion on climate change and how they can be a part of the solution to the climate crisis.
The panel featured speakers from across both the climate change and creative sectors and was moderated by the Centre for Environmental Rights’ head of communications, Lerato Balendran.
Thando Lukuko, National Node Co-ordinator at the South African Climate Network, spoke about South Africa’s outsize role in contributing to global climate breakdown, and highlighted the need for the advertising and PR industry to play a role in raising the alarm about the climate emergency in society at large: “We are the 12th biggest emitter globally, but not generating nearly enough revenue, so there is a serious problem.”
Tracey Davies, Executive Director at shareholder activism organisation, Just Share, spoke about how some of South Africa’s biggest corporations – the same companies that many retirement funds are invested in – are also huge contributors to climate change. The distance between the pollution the companies are emitting and their greenwashed advertising promises “lulls us into a false sense of security,” she added.
Founder, owner and managing director of The Friday Street Club, Emma King, also spoke on the panel. As head of South Africa’s Best Small PR Consultancy 3 years running (PRISM Awards 2020-2022), she contributed valuable insights on how values can drive business decisions: ” One of our four values is passion, which means that we only work with brands and businesses and people that we are passionate about… not only brands that we like or think are cool, but ones that we believe in.” She rejected the idea that fossil fuel clients are essential for the bottom line, saying “there’s enough business out there, I personally don’t feel like you have to go for something just because someone throws money at you.”
As someone who signed the Clean Creatives pledge on behalf of her agency, King also gave an inspiring testimony about how the pledge can help when making decisions about working with new clients: “We were recently approached to do some PR and communications for a foreign company who were coming to South Africa with plans for seismic drilling and exploration for fossil fuels. We had recently signed [the] pledge and it gave me some leverage to be able to go back to them and say… actually we’ve signed this pledge and so we’re not going to be able to work for you.”
Clean Creatives South Africa’s Stephen Horn presented an overview of greenwashing globally as well as some local examples. A notable example was that of TotalEnergies being a partner to the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment – even being included in tweets about climate change. TotalEnergies was also shown to have sponsored SanParks events – something clearly meant as a greenwashing distraction tactic when considering the company’s current plans to build an oil pipeline (EACOP) through Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.
The discussion concluded with some solutions being offered by the panellists. For Lukuko, the key was for everybody to start talking about climate change, and to do so across languages in communicate it in ways that are easy to understand. Horn emphasised the need to push for system change and be wary of companies asking individual consumers to shoulder all the responsibility for their “carbon footprint” – a term that was invented by advertising agency Ogilvy for BP! He also suggested advertising and PR agencies could support climate activists and nonprofits with their communications pro bono.
Davies said although it feels like a “gigantic problem”, the solutions to the climate crisis lie with many small actions taken by many people: “If you have a bank account, make sure your bank is not financing fossil fuels. If you’ve got investments, make sure you’re not holding fossil fuel companies. Speak up, complain, ask questions.” For King, she reflected on how through her career she has seen positive shifts around tobacco and liquor advertising regulation, so believes that we will see positive shifts on fossil fuels too: “People do change, but it takes a lot of people coming together. We’ve just got to start somewhere.”