At SXSW, Brands and Activists Chart a More Sustainable Path Forward

Clean Creatives and Ben & Jerry's used ice cream to highlight greenwashing

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Sustainability and environmental issues have been a part of South by Southwest’s focus for more than a decade—and this year was no different, with brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Slack bringing green messaging to the Texas capital through more creative mediums.

Since former U.S. vice president Al Gore gave a keynote on climate and the future in 2013, the festival has included climate in different capacities with more than 300 climate-related sessions in total, with climate change-specific tracks beginning in 2019.

Clean Creatives partnered with Ben & Jerry’s to give out free ice cream to attendees, offering flavors that called out the greenwashing messages from major oil and gas companies. Patagonia kicked off its 50-year anniversary campaign at SXSW, which is focused on supporting activism, conscious consumption and connection to nature through sport. Slack, which created its biggest activation to date for the festival, put sustainability at the center of its decisions around how to build and reuse experiential marketing materials.

Scooping out ‘fossil fuel lies’

With an ice cream truck parked on East 6th Street just a short walk from downtown Austin, Texas, where most of SXSW’s official programming resides, the Clean Creatives team handed out free scoops of Ben & Jerry’s to anyone walking by—official badge-holders or the general public.

Clean Creatives, a campaign launched in 2020 by executive director Duncan Meisel and Fossil Free Media’s Jamie Henn, aims to end the ad industry’s relationship with fossil fuels.

Over the first weekend of SXSW, people were reintroduced to familiar flavors from Ben & Jerry’s with new titles and descriptions that pointed out the shortcomings in Big Oil’s climate plans while also calling out the advertising and PR agencies that have helped energy brands sell those plans to the public.

Clean Creatives

“We wanted to reach people we haven’t had a chance to speak to in the creative industry in a way that was approachable and informative,” Meisel explained. “Hopefully [we] gave them some information they hadn’t thought about before about fossil fuel polluters and the way that they are impacting the planet.”

On March 12, the group hosted a panel in front of the ice cream truck, which included Kristy Drutman, climate creator and founder of the Green Jobs Board; Brian O’Kelley, founder and CEO of Scope3; and Sam Hornsby, founder and CEO of Triptk, a Havas agency that was the first holding company-owned shop to sign the Clean Creatives pledge.

Inspiring activism

To celebrate 50 years in business, Patagonia kicked off a campaign this month to communicate its intentions for the next five decades. Launching on March 10, the first day of SXSW, the outdoor wear brand hosted several events at its Austin stores.

“For the next 50 years, especially within marketing and storytelling, the most important thing we can do … [is] connecting people to action and helping meaningfully change people’s behavior,” Aileen Ottenweller, head of brand and impact marketing at Patagonia, told Adweek. “To kick off at South by, we planned a series of events that help catalyze that for the Austin community.”

Those events included trail runs and cleanups, gear repair, happy hours and panel discussions on things like regenerative agriculture and local environmental activism.

Sustainable experiential

While events like San Francisco’s Outside Lands are setting new standards for sustainable event production and waste management, SXSW is arguably lagging when it comes to enforcing sustainability across its events and from its vendors, with the festival’s sustainability initiatives primarily focused on signage, tote bags and donations for local nonprofits. The festival uses fully recyclable materials for its signage, a representative said, and tote bags are made from 50% recycled materials.

“Initiatives will include a pack-in/pack-out policy, a donation program in coordination with local nonprofits, and an environmental performance report post-event,” a spokesperson explained.

Slack, which hosted a three-day activation in downtown Austin, designed its experiential components for reusability, according to Colin McRae, vp of global brand marketing and creative strategy. Rather than using carpeting throughout the activation, for example, the team used reusable vinyl and sidewalk chalk.

“Instead of needing to build bespoke installation pieces or photo ops or printed materials, we really saw this opportunity [to] invest in the production of these physical assets and with an eye to reuse them and repurpose them throughout the course of the next several years,” McRae explained.

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