Creativity Isn't Neutral: How Creatives Can change our industry's relationship with Fossil Fuels

By Tilly Carter

REAL Sustainability attended the webinar hosted by Futerra and Clean Creatives  on 12 January 2020, featuring panelists:

Solitaire Townsend – CoFounder, Futerra

Bill McKibben – Environmentalist, Author and Founder of

Duncan Meisel – Campaign manager, Clean Creatives

Hannah Phang – Head of Marketing and Advocacy, Futerra


The question posed by the event was “how can we cut off the supply of creativity to the fossil fuel industry?…How can we reinvest our talent in the solutions?”

Futerra, the ‘Global change agency’ with the mission to ‘make sustainability so desirable it becomes normal’, collaborated with the Clean Creatives campaign a new project driving systemic change in the creative industry. The collaboration engaged over 250 creative and environmental industry professionals in opening up a crucial worldwide conversation. The target: advertising and PR agencies – calling for an imminent shift in industry standards towards accountability, in fuller transparency and cleaner communications. It was a (r)allying call to join forces amidst ‘the growing movement of creatives, executives and their clients that are coming forward to say that it’s time to disclose what work agencies do for fossil fuels’, in solidarity, as a united front against corporations responsible for climate change.

As a creative in the industry, committed to refocusing on climate progress rather than profit, I, like many others, have been seeking guidance on how and where to reapply my creativity, so the webinar seemed like the right place to land. An integration of ‘live chat’ introductions upon arrival, and contributions throughout, facilitated a real sense of community. Participants shared their location, backgrounds and perspectives, with insights across various fields. I noted that many had transitioned from parallel sectors i.e. advertising/PR agencies but had made the switch, and with that brought their understanding of the industry. This included Futerra’s Hannah Phang, a self-proclaimed “recovering ad person”. I felt charged by the collective’s broad capabilities, and support of this globally mobilised team, especially in these unprecedented and pivotal circumstances. Whilst our planet is put on pause, we’re given the rare opportunity to re-imagine and redesign a better system than we practiced pre-Covid: the great reset. We were encouraged to be public about being active in this community, to develop and maintain an awareness, a visibility – “zeitgeist engineers” as Bill McKibben put it – each action serving as a nudge in the direction of forming a new public (political, and industrial) consensus, an amended future.


Using a tangible example of the direct influence advertisers hold over consumer choices, and consequently our environment, Solitaire spoke of the study results of the ‘Ecoffectiveness’ framework – a metric project, seeking to measure the material impact of emissions driven by advertising. Advertising: an industry that literally and figuratively ‘prizes itself on being able to influence behaviour’. This report illustrated how a single ‘grand prix award’ winning advertising campaign for Audi directly claimed £1.78 billion revenue in car sales. The creative minds behind this campaign’s distinctive increase in car sales are, therefore, also complicit in the 5.1 million tonnes of extra carbon emissions it generated. Solitaire rightfully concluded “The climate emergency is a creative emergency as well as a chemical one”; “Creativity has consequences”.

‘Most PR and advertising firms do their best to hide their connections to fossil fuel industry clients, but through leaks, mentions in industry press, and public filings of trade associations, we can identify some of the known connections between professional communicators and fossil fuels.’ Clean Creatives’ research demonstrates how the PR and advertising industry has emerged as one of the ‘greatest barriers to climate action’, with a likely (under)estimated $200 million per year being spent on advertising and PR agencies, whose work often involves ‘lobbying against climate legislation, setting up fake front groups, greenwashing, and other unethical practices’, using misinformation and manipulation. This is in comparison to a mere 4% spent by the green industry, outspent by fossil fuel campaigns by a ratio of 439 to 1 – drowning out the green industry’s voice and ‘distorting the public discourse’. Clean Creatives have compiled a growing list exposing agencies covertly working with fossil fuel companies. The list provides “a map”, offering directions to which agencies to support and avoid, also providing a gateway to submit anonymous documents or information, to apply critical pressure from within the industry.


Images sourced from


Futerra speaks of the ‘appetite’ amongst the creative community for change, and that over 300 agencies and individuals have signed a Creative Climate Disclosure letter ‘committing to using their power to inspire change and disclose any climate conflicts’. They discussed further useful strategies encouraging professionals to publish their own Client Disclosure reports: a ranking of their top 10 largest clients by income. The report avoids breaching confidentiality as no company names are disclosed, using a short revealing description of the basis of the project and field of the client. Futerra have even created a template to make the opportunity as simple and accessible for agencies and freelancers to get involved – an interactive PDF, available on their website. 

Duncan Meisel proposed another incentive which is in the process of being introduced. The Green badge certification can be displayed as a badge of honour and encouragement for other organisations and freelancers. This is eligible to us as creatives, firms or clients, who are invited to add our voice (to the right side of the track), and join them in taking the Clean Creatives pledge: ‘As agencies, strategists, and creatives, we will decline any future contracts with fossil fuel companies, trade associations, or front groups.’ This is another emblem of transparency and tool for clean communication that can work to support the rebuilding of our cultural consensus.

As an indication of society’s advancing progress, Bill McKibben spoke of the success of the last year alone, in divestment campaigning: their collaborative efforts managed to persuade figureheads such as the Queen of England and the Pope to publicly divest from the fossil fuel industry. McKibben also spoke of the urgency of fostering “a conceptual shift”, “changing the zeitgeist”, thereby enabling policy and legislative changes to follow much more easily: “When you win the battle of the zeitgeist, you win the battle.”

McKibben demonstrated this theory using the example of gay marriage legislation – how just 10 years ago, Obama and Hillary Clinton were still against it, because it didn’t poll well. Yet through a united movement, visibility and an endless series of campaigns, it was suddenly “as if we lived in a different world” –  the public consensus, the zeitgeist, had shifted… “decisively”. He humorously and effectively noted that, “now even morons like Trump don’t bother trying to make an issue out of this, because they can’t.” 


The webinar provided an invaluable opportunity to network, to begin building partnerships amongst a new community, cultivating this collective potential and creative opportunity. Energised and informed, I left the discussion with some tangible solutions: to use our creativity where we can, taking advantage of our strengths and to maintain pressure through engagement, keeping visible and vocal. McKibben provided some suggestions – illustrative design, snappy catchphrases, catchy memes, collaborating on projects, forming collectives, working in conjunction with indigenous communities, getting involved in direct action.

The recent news of Reddit users revolting and causing Wall Street traders to lose billions in Gamestop investments, bears witness to the untapped potential of our collective power. It is testament to what we can achieve when we choose to take that power into our hands, and use it to challenge the status quo. As McKibben eloquently noted “no one is too big to be kicked in the balls”. 

From my new Covid office (bed), I was able to connect with a network spanning from India to Mexico, Slovenia to Brazil, Bristol to Berlin, all sharing a conscience for co-ordinating new solutions, supporting the regeneration of the environment through our practices. Our creative minds can assemble to become the most important resource in reforming/reshaping an outdated industry and cultural narrative, and in turn provide influence to topple a socio-economic structure based on fossil fuels. We must generate and sustain collective momentum in this opportunity for change within the advertising and PR Industry – from the inside out. We ‘have the power to shape public opinion, and policy’, to expose any obstruction to environmental justice… ‘clean creatives are the future’.