“What the world needs is for all major companies to make clear that they would prefer for their PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel brands.”
This article was originally published on Campaign Asia.
This past June, the United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres called out the PR industry for enabling fossil fuel companies to sow disinformation and “knee-cap” a transition to renewable energy.
And earlier this year, more than 450 scientists called on PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel companies.
Both acts are important milestones in the movement to end the greenwashing of fossil fuel corporations’ activities and reputations.
But the reality is that many PR agencies care far more about the sentiments of brand procurement decision-makers than what the UN secretary or a coalition of scientists say.
This is why corporate procurement and business leaders should take it upon themselves to give PR agencies the motivation they need to cease consulting fossil fuel clients.
More than 600 PR agencies have pledged not to work with fossil fuel companies by signing on to the Clean Creatives pledge. Yet, 294 PR agencies appeared on the most recent F-list consisting of PR and advertising agencies that continue to serve the interests of fossil fuel companies.
What the world needs is for all major companies to make clear that they would prefer for their PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel brands.
When the world’s leading companies state that they want their PR agencies to implement a plan to phase out fossil fuel clients, we will see those agencies make a genuine and concerted effort to stop working with fossil fuel brands.
There are myriad reasons for procurement and business leaders to take this approach.
First, the best brands and companies in the world today are making significant efforts to develop their own sustainability goals. For these companies to procure services from a PR agency that consults for fossil fuel brands negates whatever sustainability measures a brand is taking. There is no point in a company establishing ambitious sustainability goals and then hiring a PR agency that bolsters the reputations of fossil fuel brands.
Secondly, there is a clear path for agencies to move away from fossil fuel brands. Brands can ask PR agencies not to sign new fossil fuel contracts. This allows an agency working for fossil fuel brands an opportunity to put in place a transition plan to replace fossil fuel clients with new ones and preserve jobs in the process. The point is that PR agencies need to plan this transition, but many will only feel incentivized to do so if their current or prospective clients are demanding it.
The third reason for brands to avoid procuring services from PR agencies serving the fossil fuel industry is based on talent. The best agencies maintain their status only as long as they continue to employ the best people. And increasingly, the world’s best PR professionals do not want to consult for fossil fuel brands. I expect that there will soon be a wave of talented professionals refusing to work at agencies that generate income from fossil fuel brands. For the clients of those agencies, that exodus will mean lower quality service despite their prestigious names (and premium fees).
People want to feel good about the work they do, and it’s hard to feel good about helping fossil fuel brands. Numerous studies demonstrate a gap between their rhetoric around sustainability and their paltry investments in renewable energy — particularly compared to their continued investment in oil and gas extraction and industry lobbying.
For example, a study from the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE found a clear “mismatch between words, actions and investments” of fossil fuel brands that “provide the benefit of alleviating pressure from society [and] can prolong the social license to operate, providing valuable time for the majors to continue their core fossil fuel business.”
The current debate over working with fossil fuel brands isn’t the first time the PR industry has faced such an issue. PR agencies faced a similar dilemma when tobacco brands were caught openly dissembling on health issues while under oath speaking to policymakers. In that case, most of the world’s leading PR agencies dropped tobacco brands and replaced them with new clients because of the stigma attached to burnishing the tobacco companies’ reputations.
As an industry, PR is generally thriving. Most PR agencies reported growing revenues over the last decade.
It’s also a fact that PR agencies are intrinsically flexible, adaptable, and creative businesses. They can maneuver away from serving fossil fuel brands, but those that have pledged to cut ties are still a minority.
While the UN chief spotlighting this issue is helpful, it’s even more important for the companies that hire PR agencies to follow suit. Brand procurement executives who insist they will only procure PR services from agencies with plans in place to transition away from fossil fuel clients will be the real leaders on the issue.
Last week, the global firm Allison Worldwide took the Clean Creative pledge, becoming one of the larger PR agencies to promise to cease consulting for fossil fuel brands. This is a great sign of the PR industry’s willingness to assist the transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy.
However, too many agencies — including many of the largest and most prestigious —continue to kick the can down the road, as Clean Creatives’ 2023 F-list attests.
As Mr. Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster – and more time averting a planetary one.”
But this will only happen when the business leaders who procure services of PR agencies insist on it.
Join Vero and 600 other agencies in taking the Clean Creative Pledge; sign up here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Griffin is the CEO of Vero, an agency that pledged in 2022 not to work with fossil fuel companies.
This month marks the second year of Vero’s operations in the Philippines, and we’re celebrating this significant milestone with a stronger commitment to advancing sustainability communications in the country.
With the growing global focus on sustainability and the green economy, Vero is launching the Philippine edition of its “Greenwatching” sustainability playbook as well as an AI-based sustainability messaging tool to help businesses in the country combat greenwashing and craft authentic sustainability messages.
Addressing greenwashing with a comprehensive playbook and a smart bot assistant
According to the World Risk Index for 2022, which assesses the disaster risk for 193 countries, the Philippines is the most exposed to natural disasters. Despite this, the Philippines achieved a score of 41.9 on the Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index, falling below the average of 44.1. These facts underscore the impact of the environmental crisis in the Philippines and the need for businesses and the government to fast-track the country’s green growth by adopting sustainable practices and policies.
However, there are two relevant communications issues that demand urgent attention: helping Filipino businesses and consumers understand sustainability and addressing the prevalence of greenwashing, or the practice of presenting misleading, biased, or ambiguous information or claims in an organization’s sustainability messaging.
In light of these challenges, Vero is launching the Philippine edition of its “Greenwatching” sustainability playbook, titled “Tree Planting Is No Longer Enough: Advancing Authentic Sustainability Communication in the Philippines.”
The playbook’s aim is to provide brands and communicators in the Philippines with guidance on identifying and addressing the pitfalls of greenwashing while encouraging the adoption of authentic sustainability messaging. It includes practical strategies that address the “7 Sins of Greenwashing,” which include No Proof, Vagueness, Worshipping False Labels, Irrelevance, Hidden Trade-Off, Lesser of Two Evils, and Fibbing, as well as local insights and case studies that demonstrate how businesses can use the framework to identify and rectify potential greenwashing in their own communications.
“Communication professionals play a central role in curtailing greenwashing and sparking positive conversations that help fight climate change. At Vero, we wholeheartedly embrace our role as an agency to drive positive change in sustainability. Testament to this is being the first agency in APAC to sign the Clean Creatives pledge to refuse all work involving fossil fuel companies,” said Nicole Briones, Operations Director at Vero in the Philippines. “We see a growing demand for sustainable practices and the need to increase understanding and awareness of sustainability among businesses and consumers in the country. We believe actionable tools like the Greenwatching playbook can empower brands, communicators, and our own team to develop more authentic narratives about sustainability.”
Aside from the playbook, Vero rolls out an innovative “Greenwatcher” AI chatbot, trained with the knowledge and framework for greenwashing analysis as outlined in the sustainability playbook. The Greenwatcher simplifies the complex task of identifying and addressing greenwashing in communications. It is powered by access to OpenAI’s ChatGPT, where users can input prompts to help them analyze messages for potential greenwashing and receive recommendations on content revisions based on the guidelines provided in the playbook. The Greenwatcher is available for free here.
Creating impactful work
Beyond identifying areas where Vero can contribute to sustainability, the agency has also celebrated significant milestones in the past year that emphasized its dedication to supporting the growth of both global and local brands in the Philippines through effective and inspiring work. These accomplishments include:
- Harnessing AI’s potential to craft bolder narratives: Recently, Vero has introduced Rover, an AI-first PR agency focused on empowering brands across the region to tell more impactful stories through AI. Rover’s goals include accelerating team learning and amplifying human creativity in areas like influencer collaborations, marketing strategies, trend analysis, and immersive experiences. The agency places a strong emphasis on upholding ethical AI practices, maintaining transparency, fact-checking, staying informed about AI-related regulations and standards, and fostering collaborations with AI thought leaders to ensure responsible and effective use of AI in communications.
- Educating brands and communicators on evolving market trends: As part of its thought leadership efforts, Vero published a white paper that delves into the health and wellness habits of Filipinos. This initiative has been instrumental in providing brands and communicators with valuable insights into the ever-changing preferences of consumers regarding their diets and lifestyles. By sharing market insights, Vero aims to equip brands and marketers with the information they need to develop more effective strategies that resonate with their target audiences.
- Training the next generation of communicators in the Philippines: In the past year, Vero successfully concluded the first iteration of its nextGEN internship program, which saw five interns gaining real-world professional experiences and invaluable insights into the communications industry. The interns also had the unique opportunity to collaborate with WWF-Philippines, contributing creative ideas aimed at helping the organization more effectively fulfill its mission.
- Driving compelling stories for industry-leading clients: Vero had the privilege of crafting compelling stories for industry-leading brands such as Dell, Prime Video, Royal Canin, TikTok, and UNICEF. Throughout a busy yet fulfilling year, the team worked on diverse initiatives, including organizing a Manila food crawl to help grow TikTok’s food content category, hosting high-profile press conferences to spotlight Prime Video’s latest shows, crafting expert content and media events for Royal Canin to educate Filipinos on responsible pet ownership, and driving impactful communications to amplify UNICEF’s critical work in promoting children’s rights.
“Over the past year, we’ve had the honor of running exciting and impactful campaigns that resonated with audiences and helped our clients fulfill their purpose. Looking ahead, we aim to continue pushing the boundaries of creativity and channeling our collective efforts into projects that not only communicate, but also inspire and make positive impact,” said Briones.
If you’re interested in knowing more about our work in the Philippines, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can fill out our Contact Form.
In this Philippine edition of Vero’s greenwatching playbook, we look at the climate change awareness and sustainability efforts of Filipino brands and marketers.
Start experimenting and try calling out greenwashing through our Greenwatching AI bot. You can sign up here.
Climate change presents significant challenges for development in the Philippines, a nation aspiring to achieve upper middle-income status by 2025. In a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station in 2022, nine in every 10 Filipinos admitted that they are already experiencing the impacts of climate change.
According to the World Bank, climate shocks, ranging from extreme weather events to gradual environmental shifts, have the potential to impede economic activities, impair infrastructure, and lead to profound social disruptions.
The government has pledged a projected reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 75% for the period of 2020 to 2030 and has long required local governments to develop a local climate change action plan. However, the Philippines is heavily dependent on fossil fuels – the largest contributor to global climate change. This fossil fuel “addiction” is deterring the country from securing a livable and sustainable future for all.
In this Philippine edition of the greenwatching playbook, Southeast Asia communications consultancy Vero identifies the major industries contributing to climate change in the country, tackles climate change awareness and actions through surveys and interviews, and offers a conceptual framework for Filipino brands and companies regarding authentic sustainability communication.
Where the Philippines’ carbon emissions come from
The Philippines has not been a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions historically, but it may contribute more in the future. The country had 1.6 tons of average per capita carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions in 2012, which is far below the global average of 6.5 tons, per data from the Asian Development Bank.
Emissions are rapidly rising. Between 1992 and 2012, emissions rose 3% annually and, between 2006 and 2012, this growth rate accelerated to 4%. More than half of 2012 emissions were from the energy and transport sectors, and the energy sector has been the main source of emissions growth.
The energy sector is recognized as a major contributor to the adverse effects of global climate change, and emissions are projected to quadruple by 2030. The sector faces the dual challenges of heavy reliance on fossil fuels and imported energy and high energy demand.
How Filipino consumers and marketers see sustainability and their role in promoting it
Earlier this year, Vero conducted surveys and interviews with Filipino consumers and communication professionals to understand their perceptions and behaviors related to sustainability.
Filipino consumers’ view on sustainability
Among the participants surveyed, only 33% said they are active advocates of a sustainability cause or movement in the Philippines, with the majority contributing through volunteer work (such as community management, tree planting, and clean-up drives) and social media amplification (such as sharing posts related to the advocacy).
But while only a few have active involvement in sustainability movements, 65% of respondents agree that companies and brands play big roles in promoting environment-friendly practices, as they serve as communication vehicles to aid in informing people about sustainability-related issues. Only 27%, though, believe companies are truthful about their initiatives, with the majority saying companies only ride on trends (38%) and fabricate results (22%).
Perspectives of Filipino marketers regarding their contribution to sustainability
Given the fact that consumers in the Philippines see brands and companies as “communication vehicles” about sustainability issues and initiatives, we interviewed marketing and communication professionals across industries. This approach aimed to gain comprehensive insights into their awareness and initiatives regarding sustainability.
All seven interviewees have clear awareness of sustainability, saying it involves “reducing, reusing, recycling materials,” “maintaining a business process or model without depleting resources,” and “striking a balance between the environment and economy.” However, four of them admitted having no or little knowledge of greenwashing and greenhushing — two terms considered to be some of the biggest challenges to sustainability communications, as tackled in our Greenwatching Playbook published in May.
Interestingly, only one interviewee said sustainability is deeply rooted in the core corporate values, while one said practices are limited to energy-saving and waste recycling. Some respondents added that they don’t put sustainability as a top priority since it’s not currently impacting their businesses.
“Unfortunately, when our customers shop, they usually consider 1) design, 2) quality, 3) price first. Only after do they consider if it is sustainable or not. At the moment, our customers do not prioritize this important initiative,” said a senior marketing communications supervisor of a retail company. “Regardless of the indifference the market has towards this important topic, it should not stop marketers from talking about this truthfully, especially if it is part of the brand’s values.”
‘Greenwatching’ in the Philippines
One of the biggest struggles in mitigating the impacts of climate change and holding major GHG contributors accountable is the prevalence of corporate greenwashing. With brands in the Philippines racing to make their sustainability efforts heard and seen by consumers, many fall into the trap of using bold and grand statements in the way they communicate with stakeholders and the public, eventually (deliberately or not) ignoring authenticity and candor.
In the Philippines, where tree planting activities are the go-to CSR practices for companies (mainly because they provide tangible proof and are good for photo documentation), sustainability practices are often made to sound grander than they truly entail. There have been several instances when private companies and organizations planted the wrong seedlings in the wrong areas or failed to seek recommendations from scientists and conservationist groups, rendering the activities not just ineffective but wasteful. This misrepresentation leads companies off track from the comprehensive, long-term strategies necessary for genuine sustainability.
Several multinational companies with solid presence in the Philippines have been called out for greenwashing and false sustainability claims. In March 2022, activists sent plastic waste back to Nestle together with letters from youth demanding the world’s largest food and beverage company to move to truly sustainable packaging solutions and stop producing single-use plastics.
Here are other examples of corporate greenwashing in the Philippines in recent months. We also tasked our ‘Greenwatching’ bot to assess specific communication materials by involved parties and determine whether they’ve committed the seven sins of greenwashing: no proof, vagueness, worshipping false labels, irrelevance, hidden trade-off, lesser of two evils, and fibbing.
The Greenwatching is an AI bot built by Candide.Ai, based on OpenAI’s large language model and trained with specific knowledge and frameworks for greenwashing analysis synthesized in Vero’s sustainability playbook.
1) Shell Pilipinas Corporation’s development of ‘nature-based solutions’
What’s happening: Shell Pilipinas Corporation, one of the largest petroleum companies in the country, announced in May its plan to develop “nature-based solutions” for the country’s environment and natural resources.
What environmental activists say: This partnership may raise conflicts of interest, given Shell’s fossil fuel operations. Environmental activists called it “shameless greenwashing” and urged the petroleum company to stop its fossil fuel expansion and pay Filipinos reparations for losses and damages from climate impacts.
What the ‘Greenwatching’ bot found based on the announcement released by Shell Pilipinas Corporation:
No Proof: The communication provides some evidence to support the claims made, such as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between SPC and DENR, and the National Greening Program under Executive Order No. 193. However, it lacks specific details about the projects or initiatives that will be undertaken as part of the collaboration.
Vagueness: The term “Nature-Based Solutions (NBS)” is defined in the communication as activities related to the protection and enhancement of natural ecosystems or projects that improve agricultural sustainability. However, the communication could provide more specific examples of what these solutions might look like in practice.
Hidden Trade-Off: The communication mentions that SPC is “transforming its business to meet its target by avoiding and reducing emissions from its operations and from the fuels and other energy products it sells to its customers.” This could potentially be a hidden trade-off, as it does not specify how these reductions will be achieved and whether there will be any negative environmental impacts associated with this transformation.
2) San Miguel Corporation’s “sustainable efforts” in building the New Manila Airport (NMAI)
What’s happening: San Miguel Corporation released a conceptual master plan for its massive green-designed and future-ready aerocity development in Bulacan in 2022. The development is part of SMC’s Php740-billion New Manila International Airport project, which aims to boost national and local economies. SMC said the project reflects the vision of a modern Philippine city that provides built-in solutions to various socio-economic, environmental, and climate issues, and correct the mistakes seen in many urban developments of Metro Manila.
What environmental activists say: Advocates dispute SMC’s green claims, particularly concerning the New Manila International Airport project, saying it “spells environmental disaster and fisheries collapse in the province.” The location of the airport is at risk for earthquakes since Manila Bay is surrounded by the Marikina Valley Fault System, the Lubao Fault in Pampanga, and the Manila Trench, which are potential earthquake generators. It is also at risk for subsidence, the sinking of the ground’s surface due to geologic or man-made activities, which is aggravated by excessive groundwater extraction.
What the ‘Greenwatching’ bot found based on an announcement released by San Miguel Corporation:
No Proof: The press release provides some evidence to support the claims made, such as the commitment to restore and rehabilitate the existing mangrove forest cover and clean the rivers surrounding the airport project. However, it lacks specific details about how these initiatives will be implemented and what their expected impact will be.
Vagueness: The term “green urbanism” is used without a clear definition or explanation. This could potentially confuse or mislead readers. The press release also mentions that the airport city will utilize renewable energy and accommodate both traditional and alternative modes of transportation but does not provide further details on these aspects.
Hidden Trade-Off: The press release mentions that the airport city will be properly zoned, with areas dedicated to various sectors, including agriculture and food production, logistics, health and wellness, aeronautics, finance, science and technology, commerce, residences, education, tourism, entertainment, recreation, and government. However, it does not specify how these zones will be developed in a sustainable manner and whether there will be any negative environmental impacts associated with this development.
Why authentic sustainability communication matters
The prevalence of greenwashing impacts how Filipinos now engage with brands and perceive sustainability, undermining genuine eco-conscious efforts and making it challenging for consumers to make informed choices.
With consumer loyalty at stake, brands are now pushed to prioritize clear, transparent, and educative sustainability communication, and eventually bridge the gap between perception and reality.
All sustainability communication in the Philippines and elsewhere should start with a declaration of intent – what the company wants to achieve based on its capabilities and resources. Brands should prioritize transparently sharing information about their environmental, social, and economic efforts, ensuring they focus on substantiated claims rather than making assertions they cannot support.
Genuine efforts, when communicated effectively, not only enhance consumer trust but also inspire active participation. Brands that embrace authenticity in their sustainability initiatives and openly communicate their progress are not only meeting consumer expectations but also shaping a brighter, more sustainable future. As consumer awareness grows, these efforts have the potential to drive widespread change and foster a society where sustainability is not just a buzzword but a collective commitment to betterment.
Moreover, embracing authentic sustainability practices goes beyond mere consumer trust in the Philippines – it contributes significantly to a brand’s long-term viability and resilience. In an era where corporate social responsibility is under intense scrutiny, brands with genuine initiatives do not just survive; they thrive.
Employing greenwatching strategies for authentic sustainability in the Philippines
Effective sustainability communication is difficult — but essential. Between the liability of greenwashing and the temptation of staying silent on the topic, brands often find themselves standing at a crossroads. We listed some strategies for effective communication, aiming to equip brands and marketing professionals with the tools to bridge the gap between intention and action, and transform aspirations into tangible, positive outcomes for a greener future.
Set achievable goals
One way to avoid the appearance of greenwashing is to choose sustainability goals that match your capabilities and ambitions. Here are a few ways to do so:
- Set measurable and relevant targets such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, plastic waste, or energy usage alongside social metrics. Such targets should come with clear steps to reach them.
- Communicate with simple, focused data points. Thick reports are good for diligence consultants, but most other stakeholders will not be able to digest uncontextualized, aggregated data. Select, organize, and prioritize salient science-based talking points to optimize the impact of your communication. Connect each project or action to specific targets and explain the relevance of those targets to the company’s business model.
- Incorporate sustainability metrics into performance evaluations. This will align the interests of executives with the company’s sustainability goals and ensure that they are held accountable for their performance. Major companies that have initiated such policies include Nike, Unilever, Ikea, Danone, and Vodafone.
- Turn leaders into advocates. Once sustainability metrics are incorporated into an executive’s career path, maximize their impact by engaging them in PR and thought leadership opportunities such as participation in industry panels and written or video content in trade media that shares their insights and expertise.
Strategize internal change
Companies often go through intensive operational transitions to comply with sustainable standards of business (e.g., B Corp, Fairtrade, LEED, Organic, Rainforest Alliance). These changes require sincere commitment, diligent planning, strong governance, and expert management.
Frameworks of sustainable standards such as B Corp provide a roadmap for evolution, but doing so requires diverting efforts from profit-seeking, at least temporarily. Focusing on assessment, areas of improvement, and leadership engagement allows those efforts to be fast-tracked.
Communicate with internal stakeholders
Sustainability is probably on your employees’ minds, too. Empower them to participate by creating an internal communication and action framework that reflects the desired outcome.
- Educate employees about the areas where the company can make an impact.
- Inform & explain with clear, relatable goals and milestones.
- Engage employees with culturally relevant activities, measure their impact, and share it with everyone involved.
Promote a sustainable ecosystem
- Adopt sustainable procurement practices to ensure you are purchasing goods and services that are produced in a sustainable manner. Transparency and sharing go a long way.
- Build Industries via cross-promotion. To accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices along the value chain, credit and promote the vendors who enable your sustainable operations. For example, sustainable a furniture brand can co-brand its marketing efforts with its fabric vendor when the latter has significant credentials and brand equity.
- Compete with products and services; converge with sustainable practices.
- Campaign and advocate. Partnerships do not just provide opportunities for employee engagement — they can also align strategically with your business objectives.
- Focus on societal issues that relate to your business and pay it forward by creating opportunities for future business through causes (e.g., promoting education sell books, women empowerment improves business performance, access to water reduces inequality and bringing more people into the economy.)
Measure your impact — and report it
- Use third-party verification to receive a trustworthy endorsement that your sustainability claims are accurate, and your sustainability efforts are authentic. This can include certifications such as B Corp or independent audits like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards.
- Tailor your reporting and communication with company-specific highlights. Each company has a unique journey to becoming a sustainable business, so you should develop a singular narrative that weaves through both your corporate and consumer communications.
- Provide consumers with transparency regarding specific value points.
- Present stakeholders with stories of product development as an alternative to the traditional products and benefits pillars.
- Report successes, limitations, and failures with equal candidness.
Digital Account Manager, Philippines
|Charmaine de Lazo