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South Africa’s creative industry can be a ‘change agent’ for a climate safe future

By Claire Watt, Senior Account Director, The Friday Street Club

I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment.” – Nelson Mandela

I am extremely fortunate that I have had the opportunity to travel extensively across the world, and more especially explore a lot of Southern Africa. I have lived and worked in some pretty remote areas, such as Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea and more locally, the Blyde River Canyon, Thornybush Private Game Reserve and the Manyeleti Game Reserve in Limpopo.

Having experienced these wild places, I developed a passion for the environment and the preservation of our natural world. One thing always hit home though: How will we preserve these wilderness regions?

Strategic communication is a powerful way to help achieve this. As a PR specialist, I am responsible for the messaging that I create to support brands and companies. However, sometimes this can be challenging.

We are in an era of climate greenwashing, with many brands and companies pretending that they are part of the solution. And I have seen first-hand how the creative and communications industries are an integral part of promoting this.

People working in advertising and PR perhaps entered the industry wanting to express their creativity, and some, to simply to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, however, creative power has the potential to cause irreversible damage.

In March 2023, scientists at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change specifically called out the creative industry for hampering efforts to prevent a full-blown climate catastrophe. Closer to home, on Human Rights Day last year, a coalition of 23 organisations called on South African PR and advertising agencies to decline future work from fossil fuel companies.

The fossil fuel industry invests heavily in advertising and PR campaigns, both in South Africa and across the globe. The result is that, through the mightiness of communication, these companies are misleading the public on climate claims, distracting attention from their harms and delaying measures to move away from fossil fuels.

By working with fossil fuel companies, advertising and PR agencies are in essence promoting this false, and often damaging, messaging.

In order to take meaningful action, I strongly believe that it is necessary that agencies start reconsidering their relationships with major polluters. Making the decision to decline contracts with fossil fuel companies is the most effective way for agencies to show that they are committed to a future for the creative industry that doesn’t include promoting climate-breaking carbon pollution.

When considering to take this stance, there are of course financial implications, and there is also the “prestige factor” of working on such accounts. However, I believe that storytelling can shift behaviour, create collective vision, and push the focus to be more on working with clients whose values you share.

After embarking on my journey with the team at the Friday Street Club almost four years ago, I was introduced to the concept of ‘clean creativity’. Our Managing Director, Emma King, is as passionate about the preservation of the environment as I am, and she made the decision for The Friday Street Club to sign a pledge to decline any work that is associated with the fossil fuel industry. This sat really well with me. I was representing an agency that had strong values.

This pledge is the work of Clean Creatives SA, inspired by Clean Creatives in the US. Its aim is to bring together leading SA media agencies, their employees, and industry clients, to address the creative industry’s work with fossil fuels that are the principal cause of climate breakdown. It is a project for advertising and public relations professionals who strive towards creating a safe climate future.

Globally, the Clean Creatives pledge now counts more than 400 agencies and 900 individual creatives who have committed to “cleaning up creativity” by refusing work from the fossil fuel industry. In South Africa there are over 50 signatories, including 21 agencies.

I fully encourage the creative industry to show up more, and be a force for good. Together, we can make a positive impact, and support organisations that are genuinely working to effect lasting and meaningful change.

Worth a watch: A film by Purpose Disruptors called The Good Life 2030 inspires and challenges creatives to think about how the advertising industry can be reimagined in light of the climate and ecological crises.