Over 50 Canadian advertisers and PR agencies have joined a 900-strong global group that has pledged not to work for the fossil fuel industry.

Founded in the U.S., the Clean Creatives group aims to shine a light on the key and often overlooked role advertisers play in generating and spreading disinformation about fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Some companies have also joined the group, pledging not to hire ad companies collaborating with fossil fuel promotion.

Canada has no regulations restricting greenwashing, so fossil fuel interests largely have free rein to push misleading environmental claims — if ad agencies are willing to work for them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that misinformation is blocking the reduction of emissions and elimination of fossil fuel use. Industry-funded campaigns have long been a major source of this misinformation, pushing false or misleading details about the dangers of fossil fuels and undermining climate policies.

Fortunately, fossil fuel companies are "not very good" at actually building effective greenwashing campaigns without help, said Sarah Riley, founder and chief strategic officer for R&G Strategic, a sustainability marketing and communications company and member of the Clean Creatives group.

Instead, they typically hire ad and communications agencies to craft their strategies and create the images and illustrations, websites and copy that underpin successful greenwashing campaigns. That is where Clean Creatives comes in: By refusing to work for fossil fuel companies, the group is trying to shrink the pool of ad agencies available to fossil fuel producers, while highlighting the ad industry's role in harmful misinformation.

"Oil companies don't write the comms, that's not what they do," said Duncan Meisel, the Texas-based Clean Creatives executive director. "The people who write it are PR professionals and they're actually very good at what they do."

That role has come under scrutiny in recent years. Ad agencies are increasingly being targeted alongside their fossil fuel-producing clients in lawsuits and campaigns against climate disinformation, said Meisel.

Those reputational concerns, combined with increasingly frequent climate disasters hitting the major metropolitan areas where many ad agencies are based, have pushed some to reconsider whether to take on oil and gas producers as clients.

Over 50 Canadian advertisers and PR agencies have joined a 900-strong global group that has pledged not to work for the fossil fuel industry.

Riley added the shift is driven by a younger generation of communications professionals acutely aware of the climate crisis and determined to work on projects that align with their personal values. She regularly meets prospective employees from conventional ad agencies where they couldn't refuse to work on oil and gas campaigns, even if it went against their values.

"I feel like sometimes that is causing a lot of stress and tension for young people," she said.

Still, Riley said ensuring her company's work aligns with environmental values has required more than giving up on fossil fuel industry dollars. Soon after starting to work on environmental issues, she realized that green advertising required ensuring the companies she represented were actually living up to their claims.

That led her to a broader business model that also offers clients help to make their practices more sustainable before developing an advertising campaign. Her company has also worked with some environmental groups, including a recent campaign with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment that refutes greenwashing by Canada's natural gas industry.

While fossil fuel greenwashing is nothing new in Canada, recent months have seen a proliferation of disinformation campaigns by Canadian natural gas utilities and lobby groups. Take the recent revelation by Canada's National Observer and Desmog about a shady group running online ads on the New York Times, CBC and other news outlets' apps. The group, with links to a major natural gas lobby organization in Canada, is pushing back against municipal efforts to ban new gas infrastructure.

That campaign comes on the heels of efforts by the industry to create loopholes in municipal climate efforts by over-emphasizing the future ability to generate gas from organic waste, and even a campaign running massive ads on the side of city buses in Vancouver, B.C.

Still, both Riley and Meisel said they hope those ads will become harder for fossil fuel companies to create as the ad industry becomes less willing to work for climate polluters because of moral and legal concerns.

"I think you will start to see advertising and PR companies held accountable for misleading messages that have contributed to climate change," Meisel said. "As those suits advance, you will start to see the names and behaviour of advertising agencies called out more explicitly for some of the broad questions that have led to climate change."

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