Bill McDonough at 70: A look back … and ahead

February 22, 2021 by  
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Bill McDonough at 70: A look back … and ahead Joel Makower Mon, 02/22/2021 – 02:11 Architect, designer and author William McDonough is well-known to many in sustainability — as a pioneer in green building; as the erstwhile “green dean” of architecture; as co-author of the seminal 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle”; as a designer of breakthrough buildings and materials; as a deep thinker about how design relates to a healthy and abundant future; and as an enthusiastic framer of the concepts and language that have become part of the sustainability lexicon. On the occasion of his 70th birthday this month, I caught up with McDonough to discuss his journey and some seminal moments in his life and career, and how they influenced his work. And to take a peek into where he may be headed next. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Joel Makower: Well, Bill, first of all, happy birthday. Are you excited to be 70? Bill McDonough: Well, it is very exciting. There is so much going on, and I have so many things to do. And I expect to continue to be hyperactive for another 20 years. For me, it is one of those moments to stop and think, and celebrate all my friends and all the wonderful things that I have had a chance to participate in. So, it just feels like a great moment to reflect. And then get back to work. Makower: Let’s talk a bit about how you got here. I am sure there are some pivotal moments when you think about your journey to today. When you speak, you often start off talking about growing up in Tokyo. Tell me why that feels like such an important part of who you became. McDonough: My parents were in Japan, both speaking Japanese, because my father was a Japanese language officer for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and my mother was also trained in Japanese by the U.S. Army. They were one of 200 couples sent into Japan after the war to wage peace. My mother was in the first group of American civilian women off the boat. They were sent into the villages everywhere to meet with the Japanese people in villages — no uniforms, no weapons, no paperwork, no marked Jeeps. It felt so natural when I was a child there to be part of this amazing place and to wage peace. James and Sara McDonough visit K?toku-in, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Japan, 1951. All photos courtesy of William McDonough I will never forget seeing Hiroshima and saying, “Oh, my God. We had a war. What is it about people that they would try and kill each other? How could we invent something so astonishing as a device that can destroy cities in seconds?” And watching my mother do flower arranging and say, “Oh, Mom, that is beautiful.” And she says, “Yes, this is the Ma.” “What is the Ma?” “The Ma is the space between the flowers.” Makower: I can start to see how some of that connects — the space between the flowers, the idea of waging peace. Where did that take you? McDonough: Last year, I opened the G20 in two tracks: climate and energy. I did four speeches. What we were looking at was how do we look at carbon in this circular economy? How do we look at carbon itself as an element, which is both an energy source and a material? How do we really start to think about how we manage it by intention? So we created a protocol about that. I am cataloging various things that are accruing into who I am, and the title of it is, ‘Waging Peace Through Commerce by Design.’ I do a little portfolio every six months about what I am working on or what I have done, and I am cataloging various things that are accruing into who I am, and the title of it is, “Waging Peace Through Commerce by Design.” Every act can be an act of waging peace. And so, for example, the end of all the sessions for the G20, when the leaders adopted this protocol we had put forward, the message that came with it was, “Let us all put down all sharp instruments now. We are not here to complain about how you are doing something or how you are using the wrong word or this or that. It does not matter. There is only one question: How can I help you?” That is it. All of us help each other and get this done. Makower: Your family moved from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Canada and then ultimately to Connecticut, and you attended Dartmouth. I imagine that that was a critical piece of how you got into design and architecture as a profession. McDonough: Dartmouth was magnificent for me because here I am, I am 18, and my two abiding questions from childhood were “Why do people fight with each other and destroy each other?” and “How can you make something so destructive that you can make a city disappear?” So, I started studying international relations, thinking I could be an ambassador someday. But all of the international relations courses that I could enter were around détente and about mutually assured destruction. That was so depressing that I thought, “I cannot spend my whole life arguing about mutually assured destruction.” At Dartmouth, 1972 I was doing photography and I got to work with Walker Evans — who is, I think, one of the greatest photographers of all time. And I was standing with him one day and I had an 8×10 view camera. He was using an SX-70 Polaroid. And I said, “Mr. Evans, you are the greatest black-and-white photographer of all time. I would be happy to carry your camera around.” He said, “No, no. You do not understand, Bill. You are 21. I am 71. When I was your age, I could lug around 40 pounds of equipment. But then, when the 4×5 Super Graphics came along, I could go to the factories. And then, when the Rolleiflex came around, I could go into the factories. And then when the Leica silent 35mm came along, I could go into the subways in New York. And now look what I can do. [Makes whirring sound.] Here. Portrait of William McDonough by Walker Evans.” And I remember thinking, “Oh, my goodness.” And he said, “What I am trying to teach you is that every 10 years, put down your tools.” So, if I was still walking around with an 8×10 view camera, I would only have one life. And so, every 10 years, stop, reflect and take the new tools. Makower: So, what was the path from there to sustainable design? McDonough: I was at Yale, and we had the energy crisis in 1973. I decided to build a solar-heated house. And I decided to go back to my ancestors’ place to do it, which would be Ireland, so I could understand the ancients; I could understand what it is like to be humble in a place, and then what it would be like to build a solar-powered house in Ireland. So, I just started building an experimental house there by hand. And I worked on that during the whole time I was at Yale and a year after. I got to think about these things deeply because I lived it. I was freezing, and I had no money. And building was hard, and I did not know what I was doing. I graduated from Yale and came back to New York. I worked at a big firm and did a lot of competitions, and it was really fun and we were really good. Then, when I started my own firm, my first client had a ranch in Utah, so I got to go out there and work around Zion National Park designing 13,000 acres. It was pretty fabulous — bridges and buildings. At the opening of his architecture firm in New York, 1981 Then I got hired by the Environmental Defense Fund to do their national headquarters in New York. It became known as the first green office in New York City, which we did in 1984. We were looking at the lighting for the right kind of colors. We looked at the carpets — we wanted to get all the toxins out of the carpet glues. It was the beginning of the green office and the green building movement. There were a bunch of us in the States, and we slowly coalesced into a Committee on the Environment within the American Institute of Architects. One of my contractors started the U.S. Green Building Council after building a project for me in Washington. That was David Gottfried. And it just kept going. Makower: What was it about green architecture that made you realize you needed to be doing this for the rest of your career? McDonough: To me it was just obvious. This is how we can be. It literally felt natural. Why would we not want to save healthy things? Why would we want to destroy the world at all? Why would we do that? Why would we do it to each other? We are waging peace. We are not here to poison you with carpets. We are not here to make your day miserable because the light frequencies are sending you into strange sleeping patterns. We are here to make your life better, not worse. So, it just seemed natural. It just seemed obvious and normal to me. Makower: At some point you realized that buildings were only part of it. The materials themselves — not just building materials but materials in general — were another big opportunity that needed to be addressed. How did you get to that particular pivot? McDonough: I had two things occur simultaneously in 1989. One is that I won a competition in Germany for a daycare center and my proposal was called a low-entropy building. In other words, a building that is organized instead of chaotic. I designed a daycare center that was solar-powered. It had a laundry for the parents so they could wait for the kids. Purified water. It grew food. It had shutters and skylights operated by children so they could let the sun in, keep the sun out, put them to bed at night, that kind of thing. And I just thought a building as an organism operated by children would be so much fun. With Michael Braungart, 2013 While they were having that conversation I was looking at the children and they were eating the building and the furniture. They had their mouths on everything. Chew, chew, chew. I was thinking, “What are they eating?” I realized I had to get together with an ecotoxicologist and find out what all this stuff we were using was made out of, down to the molecule. That is what ultimately led me to Michael Braungart, because Michael had been the head of Greenpeace Chemistry, worrying about exactly that kind of thing. The other thing that happened, I won a competition in Warsaw for a skyscraper right before the change of government; I had designed a building. The developer said, “You win.” And I said, “Just one thing. You have to plant 10 square miles of trees to go with the building,” because I calculated how much carbon would be released from the coal to build the building and how much would be needed to operate it. It was about five square miles of trees’ worth of oxygen production or carbon sequestration required to set up one building. And so, I said, “That is part of the building. The 10 square miles of trees go with it.” With a model of the Warsaw Tower, 1980s They priced it, and it was $150,000.00. Amazing. In Poland. That 10 square miles of tree planting was one-tenth of the advertising budget. It was such a strange thing to tell the developer to do that it ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And they said, “We will plant a forest to satisfy an architect who loves clean air.” Makower: Talk a little bit about the Hannover Principles . First of all, what they are, for people who do not know or remember them, and how those came to be. McDonough: I was in Hannover, working there with Michael. Hannover had just won the World’s Fair for 2000, and they wanted to do sustainability as the theme. They asked me to write the design principles for that World’s Fair based on our work in sustainability. We wrote them from New York. Nine design principles . I still use them. And then, later that year, in June 1992, the German government decided to give the Hannover Principles as a gift to the Earth Summit. Makower: What has happened with them since? Are they still referred to? Have they propagated in any way? McDonough: I see them referred to all the time. We did not make any big program out of it or anything. They are just there. And you can find them, and people render them and make posters out of them and call and ask me to explain them. Makower: The ’90s was in many ways a golden decade for you. You became dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. You designed a building-like-a-tree structure at Oberlin. You designed a building for Herman Miller . You designed  Nike’s European headquarters . You got a Presidential award, I think from Bill Clinton. Then, all of a sudden you seemed to be all about China. What happened? McDonough: Well, President Clinton, after they had a visit by Zhu Rongji in the White House —I think it was around ’98 — it was the first Chinese leader to visit the U.S. since the revolution, and they wanted to exchange gifts. And they had to be careful when exchanging gifts, obviously. So, they decided the exchange would be sustainable development. Let us share information about that. Because the politicians did not know what it was. So, we created the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, based out of Portland. They looked for a U.S. chair, and they proposed governors and they proposed senators, and the Chinese kept saying, “No. No. No. We are looking for a long-term relationship. Four years is not enough.” With Madame Deng Nan, 1999 So, finally they decided “What about Bill?” because I had won that award at the White House for sustainable development and I am an academic to them, which they respect. And I know a lot of commercial people because all my clients are CEOs and chairs, essentially. And so they said, “You can represent the U.S.” And so I did. For 10 years I was the U.S. chair, with Madame Deng Nan, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, in China. Makower: What did you learn? McDonough: When we set up the circular economy, the first version for the 12th five-year plan, which came along later, it was interpreted really as “Please recycle.” It had no depth. The second five-year plan, the 13th, became “Implement the circular economy.” So, we started putting guidelines in it. We had “Cradle to Cradle” translated into Chinese by a poet. In China, it was called “The Design of the Circular Economy.” But it is hard to make these kinds of changes. It is really hard. What we were doing was creating a de facto standard of good behavior. But we were not required to by law. We were just doing it. That is the part I really learned, is that you start with inspiration, then you move to creative work, and then you start to execute against it. And once you have executed it and it can stand on its own two feet, well then it is a reference point for people, so it can actually become a standard. The government was not involved in any of this. We just did it. A lot of the things we were working on way back then are now becoming regulations. And I am seeing really good regulation in China over the quality of packaging based on our biological and technical nutrient conversations with them. It is coming to pass. And even watching the Chinese put up the green fence on our recycling, they said, “We are just going to have to say no to all of this because they are sending us the worst of it.” Those kinds of things were people paying attention to issues of human health and dignity and trade and quality. It is slow but worthwhile. With Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute gala, 2012 Makower: A lot of people, when they think of Bill McDonough, immediately go to ” Cradle to Cradle .” Even more so than the Hannover principles, that feels like your legacy. How do you feel about where that has gone? McDonough: I am just so happy that it is meant so much to so many people. I mean, it is the core of the circular economy. I was able to chair the circular economy at the World Economic Forum and we used that as the basis. I have been able to share it with lots of people. Ellen MacArthur has adopted biological, technical, restorative, regenerative. And “product as a service,” I thought, was a really important idea we put forward that has been taken up pretty vigorously. When we first did it, people were saying we were communists because we did not believe in ownership. And we were saying, “Well, what you want from a washing machine is clean clothing, not the ownership of metals, rubber and glass.” So, there is a whole way to think about these things. And modern society has caught up with that, of course. Philips still owns the indium and the gallium and the rare earths and the aluminum from its products. That is the stuff of their business and they still have it on their books. How exciting. Those elements of “Cradle to Cradle” have been widely adopted and in all kinds of forums and programs. So I am really pleased about that. The key thing, though, is that it is really about ecological health down to the molecule. So, even though it became the basis for the circular economy, which we are happy about, at the same time we say “safe and circular.” Safe, then circular. Because a lot of people are saying, “Circular everything.” Well, some of it is toxic and if you have a circular economy, that is bad instead of good. Makower: Where do you see the biggest untapped opportunity for the circular economy? McDonough: I think the largest untapped opportunity is the way we design for the circular economy. We still have people saying, “I am designing for end-of-life,” and that term is actually referencing a scientific protocol known as life-cycle assessment or life-cycle analysis, but it is still a human projection. The idea that these inanimate objects have a life is a bit odd when you think about it. They are not biological items. They are metals and plastics or whatever. We like to say, ‘Do not say end-of-life because it scares children.’ We like to say, “Do not say end-of-life because it scares children.” We know that you are referring to sourcing and disposition, which is a good thing. But let us not say to the children, “We are designing for end-of-life.” So, we say “design for end-of-use.” And once you say “design for end-of-use” it makes you stop. Then you say, “Well, what is the next use?” because that is the obvious next question. So, then you design for next use. So, when you asked, “What is the next big opportunity?” it is design. It is design for next use in the circular economy. But safe and circular. That is somewhere we are working right now, with all kinds of tools — AI, blockchain, what we call material passports and buildings as material banks — we coined terms for all this. These things are all being held for future generations in trust and made available to them. Makower: One of the things that you have started talking about in the last couple of years is carbon — circular carbon and various types of carbon, and that not all carbon is equal. Why is carbon the next interesting place for you? McDonough: I have been involved with renewables forever, but I did not get into the carbon per se issue because there were so many people involved who were so articulate and so engaged and knowledgeable. But all of a sudden one day it occurred to me that carbon had become the enemy. And for a person who works with materials, this is really sad. Demonizing carbon? We are carbon. This is not a good message for the children. “Carbon is the enemy.” “Bad carbon.” So, it is because we worry about the climate and we worry about combustion and we say carbon is a problem and “Carbon-negative is a positive.” It is confusing. This is like saying “less bad,” as we pointed out a long time ago. “Less” is a numerical relationship. “Bad” is a human value. So what I am trying to do is bring values to value. So, the values are “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “moral/immoral,” “ethical/unethical.” Plato, and then Aristotle, his student, talked about what he called practical wisdom. Aristotle was looking for truth in science and numbers. Smart. Plato is looking for truth in meaning. Wise. So, I prefer wise buildings to smart buildings because we can go beyond statistical significance into a natural intelligence. The idea of looking at carbon and saying it is bad — carbon is an innocent element, a magnificent thing because it is a core of life. I thought, what if we redefine our way of dealing with it and what if we had new language for carbon that does not demonize it? I wrote a paper in Nature , and it has had a wonderful effect. I am delighted that the terms get used. And it basically said we have living carbon, which we can celebrate and we should in every which way we can. The sun shines on the Earth. The carbon obviously becomes photosynthetically engaged and off to the races and we have living things. Biomass. Beautiful. And then we have durable carbon, which is carbon sitting still in a mountain or it might be a beam in a building for a thousand years. And that is what I call the technosphere. A wood beam can be in the technosphere because it is an object of human intention and use, and it is durable. That would include plastics that are recyclable. So, it is durable and it is in our technical system. I thought we needed a new language for carbon. Fugitive carbon, no. Durable carbon, careful. Living carbon, celebrate. And then there is the third kind of carbon, which is fugitive. So, let us just call it for what is. Fugitive carbon at this point in history is a toxin because a toxin in the United States is defined by dose and duration. And so, what is the dose, what is the duration? The dose in the atmosphere is way overloaded and the duration is way too long. We have turned carbon into a toxin for the atmosphere. That is why I thought we needed a new language for carbon. Fugitive carbon, no. Durable carbon, careful. Living carbon, celebrate. Makower: It strikes me that as a design guy, as a visual thinker, that you care a lot about words and language. “Less bad” is not the same as “good.” Carbon is not the enemy. And so many other things — not to mention words and phrases you have either coined or popularized. What is it about language that you see as so critical when so much of the world is a design problem? McDonough: The great thing about being a human is that we get to communicate with each other. And we use words. So if we can embed meaning and spirit and accuracy into our language, we can start to get clarity. So, I just see the obvious, like when I first said “waste equals food.” That is the clearest way I could say it. And “Carbon is not the enemy.” “What? Oh.” And so on. I just love the language. I found out that my writings are being used in a famous English university in a course on rhetoric in the English department. When I asked the professor, “Why are you using my writing?” he said, “You have a weird way of discovering the obvious. And you read your stuff and you go ‘Wait a minute’ at the end of it. ‘That was obvious.’ And then you realize it was not obvious at all before you read it. Which means you made your argument. Which is rhetoric. That is why we do it.” I like that. We all search for words that have meaning and it becomes obvious upon reflection. Makower: You talk a lot about the children. That seems to be a passion, maybe even an obsession for you. Of course, you have kids of your own. But what else is that about? I mean, obviously that we want to make the best world for future generations. Why have children become such a part of your approach? Teaching a group of sixth graders about systems design, 2011 McDonough: I always start designing with a question: “How do we love all the children of all species for all time?” I think that is a really important question because it puts us in the context of something we all share everywhere as living things. And having traveled a lot as a child — my mother called me when I was 40 and said, “I just went through your box of all your report cards. Did you know you went to 19 different schools before college in lots of countries?” — I think I got the chance to see a lot of people and say, “I wonder how I can help them.” I mean, when we had cholera in Hong Kong and all the refugees came, we all went out with our water buckets. And during the dry season, we only had four hours of water every fourth day but we would all stand in line together and we would all help each other. And we would make visits to the refugees to bring them things and try and help them. That is the way it was. We are here to help each other. It needs to be understood by the children — that it is honest, that it is pure at its core. That is why I am interested. Pull Quote I am cataloging various things that are accruing into who I am, and the title of it is, ‘Waging Peace Through Commerce by Design.’ We like to say, ‘Do not say end-of-life because it scares children.’ I thought we needed a new language for carbon. Fugitive carbon, no. Durable carbon, careful. Living carbon, celebrate. Topics Circular Economy Leadership Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off DuHun Photography

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Bill McDonough at 70: A look back … and ahead

Harder but not impossible: COVID-19 and the Sustainable Development Goals

February 22, 2021 by  
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Harder but not impossible: COVID-19 and the Sustainable Development Goals Alan AtKisson Mon, 02/22/2021 – 01:00 In 2015, the world, acting through the United Nations, set in place a system of 17 very ambitious goals to guide humanity’s development toward sustainability through 2030. Now it is 2021. Neither nature nor global politics has been especially kind to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, over the past few years. Nature’s complex mechanisms have served up a global pandemic caused (apparently) by a cross-species virus together with intensifying fires and storms that can be credibly attributed to climate change; and the global political arena has mightily distracted us with assaults on democracy and global solidarity as well as chronic conflict along multiple fronts. There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from. COVID-19 gets the lion’s share of the blame, of course, for our current troubles. In too many places and across too many dimensions of sustainable development, the pandemic has turned hard-won progress into a backslide whose momentum must first be stopped and reversed before development can again take on the shape of positive transformation. I am thinking especially of global poverty, hunger, health and education — SDGs 1 through 4 — where the latest figures from the World Bank and other centers of analysis paint a bleak picture of years lost and lives threatened. But the analysis does not stop there. The SDGs are treated as an interlinked system of goals because that is how the world actually works. I won’t bore you with the relevant SDG numbers, but you can easily build your own mental systems map from the following: Girls not getting opportunities to educate themselves contributes to reversals in gender equality, which in turn affects the quest for long-term economic prosperity, which makes it harder for girls to get educated. People who had climbed up over the poverty line, but are now falling back under it, are mostly doing so in the cities, which hardly contributes to making those cities more sustainable. Plane traffic may be reduced, which is indisputably good for the climate, but reduced as well are the investments into the greener economies of tomorrow that can prevent climate change, rescue biodiversity and create good jobs for a sea of unemployed people, especially youth. Virtuous cycles can turn vicious. That is an undeniably dismal state of affairs for those of us whose professional lives revolve around trying to help the world achieve these universally acclaimed goals (which also inform the more specific development goals set for Sida, the Swedish agency where I work, by Sweden’s government). How is it possible not to succumb to an erosion of hope? As always: by looking at the big picture, taking the long view and continuing to seek more effective levers of change. There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from — such as the dramatic acceleration of digitalization. Profound changes in working methods and styles have been reported wherever decent internet is to be had. Suddenly, meetings and conferences that previously “had to be” held in physical, face-to-face settings are working just fine on screen. Maybe better: You can include more people, under roughly equal conditions, when you don’t have to fly them around and put them up in hotels of varying fanciness. Necessity has mothered digital invention together with rapid learning advances that have proved to us that we can change must faster than our most ambitious management plans assumed was possible. Thanks to these advances, work on sustainable development has not stopped. In fact, in some critical areas, it has intensified. Consider finance. In the past year major investment leaders at the global level have pushed themselves and others to take stronger stands (and produced better measurable results) on climate change, diversity, gender equity and corporate responsibility generally. Investment levels in developing countries may be down, but new vehicles for that investment are being innovated and designed, so that when the money flow eventually accelerates again it will have more and potentially more effective places to go. It is not my purpose here to paint a rosy picture of the future with these short syntheses and personal impressions gleaned from dozens of recent digital meetings, reports, dialogs and conferences. As a world, we have a tough road ahead. People living in rising poverty and oppression have it toughest of all, and I challenge everyone reading this to keep that reality in the forefront of their minds as we continue down that road. But it is important also to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not made the achievement of sustainable development impossible. It has, of course, made achieving those goals by 2030 a whole lot harder (and it was already very hard). Yet it has also shown us that even in the midst of serious global calamity, when the goalposts are still shifting away from us, we can (and must) keep pressing forward. Working to prevent greater damage where we have to. Making positive change where we can. Believing that the tide eventually will turn again in our favor. Because that is what will make it turn. Pull Quote There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from. Topics COVID-19 Sustainable Development Goals / SDGs Featured Column North Star Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off Shutterstock

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Harder but not impossible: COVID-19 and the Sustainable Development Goals

Greenwashing: Untruth in Advertising

January 20, 2021 by  
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Since the first market sellers shouted out the merits of … The post Greenwashing: Untruth in Advertising appeared first on Earth 911.

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Greenwashing: Untruth in Advertising

Pressure on creatives: PR, advertising firms targeted by fossil fuel divestment movement

November 30, 2020 by  
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Pressure on creatives: PR, advertising firms targeted by fossil fuel divestment movement Michael Holder Mon, 11/30/2020 – 01:00 As fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate becomes increasingly frayed, more industries in their orbit are getting entangled in the reputational quagmire that is now part and parcel of any activity that exacerbates the climate crisis. Airlines have faced “flygskam” — or flight shame — which has seen some travelers shun air travel, heightening pressure for the sector to demonstrate that it can develop a flight path to net-zero emissions. Similarly, carmakers around the world are racing to develop fully electric models in response to escalating consumer and regulatory pressure. And energy providers the world over are rushing to slash their reliance on fossil fuels as the clean energy transition gathers pace.  Now advertising and public relations companies, it seems, are also feeling the pressure from the societal drive for a rapid net-zero transition — and it is posing difficult questions for an industry far more used to pushing messages from behind the scenes than being front and center of the story itself. Yet that is precisely where the industry has found itself, after a new grassroots campaign — Clean Creatives — launched this month in the United States, aimed at pressuring advertising, PR and public affairs agencies to end what it regards as “greenwashing and misinformation campaigns that help delay climate action.” We can’t let these major oil companies that are spending most of their capex on oil and gas run a bunch of advertising pretending they’re renewable energy companies. Anyone doubting the seriousness of the campaign needs only look at the team behind it. Clean Creatives is backed by the same organizations and individuals that helped trigger the fastest divestment movement in history, convincing thousands of investors to ditch fossil-fuel assets and arguably doing more damage to fossil-fuel companies’ license to operate than any other campaign. Backed by climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben — who wrote an article in the New Yorker titled ” When creatives go destructive ” calling on major advertising and PR firms to stop working with oil, gas and coal companies that are not taking concerted action to decarbonize — the campaign aims to shine a spotlight on the scale of money being poured into boosting fossil-fuel firms’ reputations. It is a big business. Between 2008 and 2017, fossil-fuel industry trade associations in the U.S. spent almost $1.4 trillion on public relations, advertising and communications, according to Clean Creatives. Since the 1990s, the world’s top five public oil companies alone — Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips — have spent over $3.6 billion on reputational advertising, much of it centered on projecting an environmental and socially responsible image, according to a Brown University study . Yet the actual figure could be even higher, as it is difficult to lift the bonnet on the often private relationships between PR firms and their clients. Campaigners have long argued that while major fossil fuel companies are spending big sums on publicly pushing messages that suggest they are committed to decarbonizing by investing in greener forms of energy, in reality, the overwhelming majority of their capital expenditure still goes towards oil and gas. Now, this new campaign wants to call out PR and advertising firms on this apparent disconnect. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to highlight — we can’t let these major oil companies that are spending most of their capex on oil and gas run a bunch of advertising pretending they’re renewable energy companies,” Jamie Henn, co-founder of global climate campaign group 350.org and producer of the Clean Creatives campaign, told BusinessGreen. “The reason they do that is to maintain their relevance to the economy, to convince politicians that they don’t need regulation, and to try and get the public to not worry about the fact that these companies are destroying the planet.” He argued oil and gas company advertising is usually not directed at getting consumers to buy their products and services but is more akin to political lobbying. “This is political advertising that they’re running to maintain their influence over public policy,” he suggested. And as pressure ramps up on major advertising and PR firms for change, the impact is already being felt. Almost immediately in response to the Clean Creatives campaign, communications consultancy Porter Novelli announced it would end its working relationship with the American Public Gas Association from 2021. Clean Creatives hopes others soon could follow suit. “We think this campaign can be quite effective because if there was ever a target that cares deeply about their public image, it’s PR and ad people,” Henn said. “They’re uniquely sensitive to critiques like this.” The pressure on the industry has been building for quite some time already, and the reputational hazards are already being laid bare. Last week, it emerged that FTI Consulting — one of the largest management consultancy and communications firms in the world — has been dropped by at least three clients, while several other global asset managers are also reviewing their relationship with the firm, due to revelations about its controversial work with oil companies in a New York Times expose earlier this month . When contacted by BusinessGreen, the firm declined to comment. We think this campaign can be quite effective because if there was ever a target that cares deeply about their public image, it’s PR and ad people. “The precedent has now been set that if you want to be known as a green PR company or want to work with clients who care about sustainability, you can’t work with the fossil fuel industry,” Henn said. “We’re seeing that with FTI Consulting, and we’re also seeing that with Porter Novelli.” He argued the ripples from these reputational risks have the potential to spread much further than the PR and advertising industry itself, too, as the issue poses wider questions for any company that contracts out its PR and advertising services, not just the agencies themselves. “A lot of businesses think really deeply about transparency when it comes to sustainability — such as who their suppliers are, what pesticides they use, or whether they are buying materials from sustainable sources,” Henn explained. “The same question is rarely asked about their PR and advertising firms, but it’s a crucial issue, because if you’re paying millions of dollars a year to an agency that is also spreading misinformation on climate change, you’re spending against your values — just in the same way that you wouldn’t want your organic cereal to come from a wheat field sprayed with pesticides.” Yet it is clear that the industry — like many so many others — is in danger of totting up significant long-term costs in return for the money it earns from fossil fuels in the short term. And just like fossil fuel companies themselves, they also risk upsetting staff and stakeholders, and losing out to competition in a future talent pool drawn from an increasingly climate-conscious public. Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association in the United Kingdom, believes it therefore is becoming increasingly untenable for advertising, PR and lobbying firms to engage in blatant greenwashing on behalf of fossil fuel clients. “I think we’ve been at that stage for some time, but it is now accelerating partly because it’s of huge concern to the people working in the industry,” he told BusinessGreen. But for advertising, PR and lobbying firms looking to avoid the reputational risks of working with fossil fuel industries, there are not always easy answers. Turning down a client contract to run a major PR campaign for an oil major that consistently has lobbied against climate action and has not even signaled its intention to be part of a future net-zero economy is one thing, but more clients from carbon-intensive industries do not fall quite so easily into the climate laggard category. One could argue, for example, that having set net-zero targets and started to demonstrate a willingness to align with the Paris Agreement goals, oil majors such as Shell, BP and others have an entirely legitimate case for enlisting PR firms to showcase their green efforts. As with the financial divestment movement, there is a valid debate about whether engagement with high-carbon firms that are working to reduce their emissions is more effective than simply severing ties. Many within the energy and PR industries would argue that in publicly showcasing a carbon-intensive firm’s decarbonization plans, they help build momentum in support of climate action and make it more likely that ambitious emission reduction strategies are enacted. Yet the Clean Creatives campaign specifically calls out PR giants such as WPP and its subsidiary Ogilvy for working with Shell and BP, respectively. As with all of the PR firms contacted by BusinessGreen for this article, WPP declined to comment. Woodford believes agencies may face some difficult decisions over which clients to work with in the short term, but that it will become increasingly straightforward to tell the difference between a fossil fuel company paying lip service to climate action and one which is genuinely intent on reinventing its business over the coming decades in support of a net-zero emission economy. “I think it’s up to each individual firm and management team to make their own decision and judgements for whether their agency believes a company is going fast enough or acting seriously enough to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. “But whether that’s a favorable or unfavorable view, the pressure from the public and from governance is ultimately all going in one direction, and I think that’s a very good thing.” If you want to be known as a green PR company or want to work with clients who care about sustainability, you can’t work with the fossil fuel industry. The Advertising Association has been at the forefront of an industry-wide initiative in the U.K. that launched earlier this month dubbed Ad Net Zero , which aims to achieve net-zero emissions across the development, production and media placement of advertising over the next decade. It also intends to work with production agencies, clients and event organizers to decarbonize the wider value chain, while harnessing the power of their work to influence and promote more sustainable consumer choices. The initiative has had widespread support from across the advertising sector — including from WPP — according to Woodford, who says Ad Net Zero will be working with advertising businesses “wherever they are on the [net-zero] spectrum to help them improve their performance.” But while much of the focus has been on the negative greenwashing activities of some firms in the industry, advertising, PR and lobbying also can be used to accelerate climate action. For example, last year 20 U.K. advertising and communications agencies including Greenhouse PR, Barley Communications and Borra Co signed a pledge launched by sustainability consultancy Futerra to avoid working on fossil fuel briefs, promising to “use their power for good.” McKibben last weekend described PR campaigns and snappy catchphrases used to launder fossil fuel firms’ reputations as the kindling “on which the fire of global warming burns,” but in the right hands these tactics also can act as grease for the wheels of climate action by drumming up public support for the positive, exciting future the net zero transition offers. “The sector can help businesses drive positive change,” says Woodford. “Momentum is building across all sorts of industries, and I think the role of the advertising and PR industry is to amplify and accelerate that, to help businesses that are doing the right thing win in the marketplace, which can also encourage others to do the same.” As the net zero transition accelerates across economies and societies, there will be challening decisions for companies in all industries to make about the future direction of their business. But for ad and PR agencies which are all too aware of the value of maintaining a strong public reputation, those decisions likely will have to be made very quickly indeed, and the direction of travel suggests the pressure on them to avoid working with laggard fossil fuel firms will only intensify. As Woodford says, the potential impact of the adverting and PR industry on the pace and direction of the net zero transition therefore could be hugely significant. “Hopefully the tipping point is where you see the full array of competitive forces aligned to reducing the carbon footprint of industry and society, and people competing on this basis,” he explains. “This is where advertising is a great driver of competition and innovation.” Pull Quote We can’t let these major oil companies that are spending most of their capex on oil and gas run a bunch of advertising pretending they’re renewable energy companies. We think this campaign can be quite effective because if there was ever a target that cares deeply about their public image, it’s PR and ad people. If you want to be known as a green PR company or want to work with clients who care about sustainability, you can’t work with the fossil fuel industry. Topics Marketing & Communication Corporate Strategy Climate Strategy BusinessGreen Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off Various climate change-related placards carried by protesters at the Global Climate Strike Rally and March in downtown San Francisco in September 2019. Shutterstock Sundry Photos Close Authorship

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Pressure on creatives: PR, advertising firms targeted by fossil fuel divestment movement

7 easy steps for telling your sustainability story

April 23, 2018 by  
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Your audience can tolerate only so many melting glaciers. How being authentic can really connect.

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7 easy steps for telling your sustainability story

Shell enlists A-list celebrity cast to #makethefuture

October 26, 2016 by  
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Old school oil and gas company; innovative marketing approach.

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Shell enlists A-list celebrity cast to #makethefuture

Exxon, the Olympics and Greenwashing 2.0

August 24, 2016 by  
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What if the oil colossus actually did commit to clean energy?

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Exxon, the Olympics and Greenwashing 2.0

Richard Branson chews his nails to fight rhino poaching in new ad

January 14, 2016 by  
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A new ad campaign features Sir Richard Branson and a number of Chinese celebrities chewing their nails for a good cause. The goal of the videos is simple: instead of going out and purchasing endangered rhino horn , viewers are encouraged to bite their nails instead. That’s because rhino horn and fingernails are made of the same protein, keratin. Read the rest of Richard Branson chews his nails to fight rhino poaching in new ad

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Richard Branson chews his nails to fight rhino poaching in new ad

Portable Airbags: Coming Soon to a Smartphone Case Near You?

December 12, 2013 by  
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If there’s one thing all smartphone owners have in common, it’s the anxiety about dropping and cracking an expensive piece of hardware while you’re out and about during the day. Most people slide their phone into a plastic case and hope for the best. But Honda has developed an unusual new solution to the problem: a clunky phone case with 6 built-in airbags which inflate instantly when the phone detects that it’s falling. It’s not very attractive, but at least it gets the job done. Watch the video to see the case in action below the jump. Read the rest of Portable Airbags: Coming Soon to a Smartphone Case Near You? Permalink | Add to del.icio.us | digg Post tags: ad campaigns , advertising , airbags , Honda , n-wgn , phone airbags , phone case , smartphone case , smartphone case n        

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Portable Airbags: Coming Soon to a Smartphone Case Near You?

Walt Disney Company To Ban All Junk Food Advertising On Its Television Networks

June 6, 2012 by  
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The Walt Disney Company has announced that by 2015 all of its networks, including The Disney Channel and Disney Junior, will stop advertising foods and beverages that “don’t meet [the company’s] nutrition guidelines.” It’s a surprising announcement considering Disney’s merchandise can be found in McDonald’s Happy Meals, but it is all part of the media giant’s efforts to tackle childhood obesity. Read the rest of Walt Disney Company To Ban All Junk Food Advertising On Its Television Networks Permalink | Add to del.icio.us | digg Post tags: disney advertising , happy meals , healthy food guidelines , junk food , nutritional guidelines , walt disney , walt disney junk food ban

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