Originally published on Brands Vietnam’s Rethink CSR #22: ‘How do creative agencies deal with climate change and pursue sustainability?’
Vero is one of a handful of agencies in Southeast Asia that signed the Clean Creatives pledge, a promise to turn down work with fossil fuel businesses or brands affiliated with or funded by fossil fuels, in a bid to fully embrace sustainability in the creative industry.
But is this against business interests? Why did Vero make this decision? And what exactly can communications agencies do to pursue their commitment to sustainability?
To answer these questions, Brands Vietnam sat down with Brian Griffin, CEO and co-founder of Vero and Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, Vice President of Brand & Culture at Vero, to discuss this highly relevant topic.
Firstly, can you share your opinions on general corporate social responsibility activities in Vietnam?
Brian Griffin: For the longest time, sales and profits have always been the top goal of many businesses. Although this is understandably essential, some companies ignore or deny other vital aspects of the business to optimize their plans regardless.
However, the world has changed a lot. For long-term survival, businesses need to thrive in stakeholder capitalism, where the obligation is to focus on all stakeholders instead of only shareholders.
We don’t care so much about the former CSR model at Vero. Instead, we’re pursuing stakeholder capitalism, ensuring comprehensive benefits for all stakeholders to achieve healthy growth. The interests of stakeholders and profits have a close, inseparable connection.
Moreover, our employees and the public have high expectations for businesses to commit to sustainability. Individuals are concerned about the planet’s future; companies must be sensitive to this.
Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse: I agree with Brian. Good stakeholder governance is our core. Typically, we have to make sure that everything we do is transparent.
Greenwashing is currently a significant problem. Greenwashing refers to activities that polish business brand names by covering themselves with “a green shell,” but many shortcomings exist. According to the report “The 7 Sins of Greenwashing” by Underwriters Laboratories, there are seven sins businesses commit in an attempt to greenwash, including:
1) The sin of the hidden trade-off
For example, a company says its products are made with recycled or compostable materials. Still, this claim is highlighted to cover up other environmentally damaging factors the company uses when creating the product.
2) No proof
When a company announces that they are sustainable or following sustainable practices, there must be proof of how it will achieve this.
If a brand uses words in communications like ‘all natural,’ ‘ethically sourced,’ or ‘sustainable’ without explaining the value of these words. This can confuse the public, who may take these labels at face value.
4) Focusing on statements that are irrelevant to current climate change issues.
For example, businesses state that products are chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) free. CFCs are damaging to the environment, but they were outlawed by 197 countries in 2010, dubbing this information irrelevant to the current issue.
5) Focusing on the lesser of two evils
For example, if an advert promotes a car with a ‘hybrid’ engine whilst ignoring the overall damage of the car’s combustible engine on the environment.
6) Using fake labels
This sin is committed by companies who create their own sustainability labels, misleading the public to believe that their products or services are sustainable. Certificates by third parties such as B-Corp or Fairtrade, which have recognizable logos, should be trusted instead of those claiming ‘100% Organic Certified’ or ‘Energy Efficiency Certified’.
7) Lying to the public
Any claim that a business is sustainable without when the company is aware that overall, the work is damaging to the environment.
As a PR agency, we prioritize ensuring our clients stay aware of greenwashing pitfalls.
Read our Greenwatching playbook to help our clients navigate the tricky waters of sustainability and ensure they follow the right path.
Can you share any unique initiatives Vero has undertaken to realize the agency’s vision of CSR?
Brian Griffin: I have to admit that there are many problems now. However, climate change is the most urgent problem that the world is facing. Younger generations will be affected by the severe consequences of climate change if we do not tackle the problem right now together.
Raphael Lachkar, Vero’s COO, spoke to us about Clean Creatives with so much excitement. “Realizing the positive change that we could make, Vero signed the Clean Creatives pledge in January 2022 and became the first agency to sign the pledge in Southeast Asia.” The pledge calls on agencies to cut ties with fossil fuel brands.
Since then, we have actively participated in many sustainability-related conferences and introduced the Clean Creative pledge to the creative industry to invite them to the movement and make a change. We helped organize a webinar called “Should PR Cancel or Council?” with the participation of leaders from PRovoke Media, PRCA APAC, agency M&C Saatchi, Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), and founders of Clean Creatives on the relationship between PR and fossil-fuel-using brands. Through this webinar, we emphasized the role of Clean Creatives in inviting communications agencies and professionals to take the initiative to help prevent climate change and foster sustainability.
According to research by InfluencerMap in 2021, in public communications materials from the five biggest fossil fuel giants in the world, 60% contained at least one green claim, while only 23% contained claims promoting oil and gas. Claims highlighting the companies’ support of, or involvement with, efforts to transition the energy mix were the most popular green claim. However, only 12% of the five companies’ 2022 capital expenditure (CAPEX) was forecasted to have ‘low carbon’ activities.
Therefore, to put pressure on fossil fuel businesses to do more to protect the environment, communications agencies should refrain from working with them.
Companies should start establishing their sustainability standards and implementing them in their evaluation process when working with an agency. On the other hand, businesses that care about sustainability should rethink cooperating with agencies working with fossil fuel businesses. If not, their efforts will backfire.
To support businesses seriously pursuing sustainable development, Clean Creatives has created “The F List.” The list includes agencies working with fossil fuel firms to cause public confusion and slow, clean energy transformation. Businesses can help in this movement by encouraging agencies on the list to make the right decision for a “greener” future.
As we realized that awareness of the Clean Creatives pledge was low earlier in March this year, we collaborated with ON PURPOSE, an India-based agency, to commercialize the Clean Creatives commitment. Through this collaboration with ON PURPOSE, we aim to raise a flag and invite more agencies to participate in environmental initiatives and achieve more sustainable business opportunities. However, many firms we have talked with said they had yet to learn they were working with agencies on the F List.
ON PURPOSE is a consulting agency with a mission to create positive change in India. The agency’s clients come from various sectors, including environment, healthcare, and gender equality, such as non-profit organizations and the United Nations. Therefore, ON PURPOSE is an ideal partner to increase the awareness of Clean Creatives and go further in the sustainable development journey.
Does the refusal to work with fossil fuel firms go against the business interests of creative agencies in general?
Brian Griffin: Signing the Clean Creatives commitment is not difficult for us because Vero has never cooperated with fossil fuel companies. Moreover, Vero is an independent and employee-owned company, so making that decision was quick.
Clean Creatives is the right move for Vero’s long-term interests. Carrying out the Clean Creatives pledge is a way to demonstrate that Vero has been working to deal with climate change. At the same time, it also articulates our stance on sustainability in all partnerships.
Therefore, not cooperating with fossil fuel businesses is not against business interests. I expect growth when gaining trust from clients whom Vero shares the same values and principles toward sustainability with.
Does Vero have any internal activities to achieve sustainable development?
Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse: Firstly, we focus on improving workplace culture.
Not only in agencies but also in other companies, people should always be a top priority. Accordingly, human resource policy is one of the factors that we constantly adjust and improve to ensure fairness for all members at Vero.
For example, Vero currently operates in 5 markets, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines, and the human resource policy in each office is different. For example, the maternity leave period for female employees in Vietnam is up to six months, while in Thailand, it is only three months. As our management board always tries to build an equal working environment for our people, we extended six months of maternity leave to the rest of our regional offices.
Our second initiative is that we are guiding our employees towards sustainable development by building The Good Shop – Vero’s very own second-hand store.
The Vero team is still relatively young, with an average age of 27 years old; together with their work nature of being “creative and trendy”, most of them tend to buy many fashion items. However, some are concerned that their shopping behavior can affect the environment.
Understanding that concern, we built a second-hand pop-up store in the office – where they can exchange and sell their pre-loved clothes to colleagues. From that, our Vero squad can feel that they are contributing to reducing waste in the fashion industry. From another angle, this is also Vero’s way of bringing our people together and creating a reason for our team members to come to the office more often.
Finally, what are the goals of Vero in the coming years?
Brian Griffin: As shared above, shortly, we will focus on strengthening our partnership with ON PURPOSE to promote Clean Creatives in Southeast Asia.
In addition, we also aim to achieve B-Corp certification. B-Corp is a certification for businesses achieving the highest environmental and social performance standards, transparency, and liability. As a creative agency, achieving B-Corp certification is essential in demonstrating our commitment to green growth to attract clients with the same values as us.
To become a B-Corp company, a business needs to complete a B impact assessment which is a quantitative procedure analyzing every aspect of its business and measures with an exact score about the business’s impact on three factors: Human resources, clients, and the environment. Only companies with a score higher than 80 out of 200 can become B-Corp. And every three years, businesses with a B-Corp must update their results and impact. This reassessment ensures that companies retain their influence and reach the latest standards.
Achieving B-Corp certification is a challenge for Vero. However, what we are doing to pursue a sustainable business model will soon help Vero accomplish its goals.