In Cannes, Greenhushing Stifled Substantive Climate Conversations

Major players pulled out of panel discussions for fear of backlash

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While activists were aiming for a more substantive and collaborative trip to the annual Cannes Lions Festival this year, some left disappointed.

Industry leaders, they said, were hesitant to speak candidly about topics like greenwashing and their work for fossil fuel clients. Instead, some said it felt like the creative industries are stuck in the 2010s on both climate knowledge and action, with leaders failing to take a clear position on major climate issues.

“We’re stuck in climate kindergarten, and it’s heartbreaking for me to watch,” Thomas Kolster, marketing activist, author and founder of sustainability and purpose-focused blog Goodvertising, told Adweek from Cannes. “We’re discussing the same things [as 15 years ago].”

For the last several years, climate change has become an increasingly urgent conversation at Cannes. Unfortunately for those craving celebratory vibes only, those conversations require asking some tough questions and talking through some uncomfortable conversations.

And in a celebratory environment like Cannes, tough conversations are harder to come by. Add to that more brands increasingly fearful of being caught greenwashing—and the increasingly polarized and vocal audiences marketers have to reach—plus a down economy, and the loud proclamations around sustainability have grown quiet.

Fear of backlash kept some agencies offstage

In some cases, agencies shied away from having those conversations publicly.

As part of the Next Level Climate Summit, a half-day event along the Croisette on the second day of the festival, ad industry network and non-governmental organization Creatives for Climate hosted a panel on the importance of upskilling the creative industries to prevent unintentional greenwashing.

But as the event neared, potential panelists expressed hesitation.

One creative agency exec, who had confirmed their participation in the panel in the weeks prior dropped out, reportedly due to fears of being called out for greenwashing or insufficient action on climate. Another agency bailed when its sustainability lead had a conflict, and the only alternative representative wasn’t comfortable speaking to the firm’s climate work.

Around a half dozen other agencies declined the invitation or opted to attend as part of the audience, according to Lucy von Sturmer, initiator and chair of Creatives for Climate.

“The greenhushing was real,” von Sturmer told Adweek. “People were just too nervous they don’t have their ducks in a row.”

In the end, the panel included Josh Akapo, co-founder and head of strategy at creative agency Archetype; Harriet Kingaby, head of climate communications project ACT Climate Labs; and Kolster. But the lack of participation from the larger holding companies and agencies made it tough for the group to have the kind of frank, industry-wide discussions they were hoping for at the summit.

Siloed conversations

Within the Palais, some official programming highlighted the industry’s impact on climate change but largely avoided directly addressing agencies’ relationships with fossil fuel clients as part of that impact.

Instead, it focused primarily on the carbon footprint of agency operations and the importance of having climate and sustainability expertise on staff.

“The conversation inside Cannes Lions hasn’t usefully changed since 2019,” said Will Skeaping, strategist for climate activism group Extinction Rebellion. “Business as usual is maintained by obfuscation (AI is the new unnecessarily buzzy topic) and keeping significant issues safely siloed.”

Skeaping spoke on stage with data analytics firm Kantar and alcohol giant Asahi. The session focused on Kantar’s Sustainable Marketing 2030 report, which demonstrates the lack of progress on climate issues within the advertising and marketing industries.

Attendees seemed to understand “the seriousness of the [climate] situation,” said Jonathan Hall, managing partner at Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice, noting a marked difference from previous years.

“There’s more of an openness to partnering with agencies, NGOs and even other corporates in a pre-competitive way,” Hall said. “Set against that is a noticeable frustration among the audience, just as we hear from society more broadly, they want to see less talking and more doing, and there is real concern about being implicated in greenwashing.”

A more organized movement

But there were notable benchmarks for the climate contingent outside the Palais as well.

At the Next Level Climate Summit, Clean Creatives hosted a panel of agencies that have pledged not to work with fossil fuel companies. That included Gale CEO Brad Simms, whose agency just announced that it had signed the Clean Creatives pledge during the festival.

There was some focus on programmatic at the summit, with Scope3’s Brian O’Kelley giving a talk on sustainably-focused supply-path optimization and its potential for reducing the carbon footprint of digital advertising.

“The next step for the industry, while we align on standards, is to ensure that sustainability is brought into business decisions, as we are already seeing proof points that reducing emissions goes hand in hand with improvements in business KPIs,” said Anne Coghlan, co-founder of Scope3.

Outside of the summit, Clean Creatives focused its efforts on actions to highlight some agencies’ relationships with fossil fuel companies, including PR giant Edelman and global ad network WPP.

“There were notably fewer disruptions this year when it came to climate activists, but harder questions asked by the audience,” said Jordan Hunter-Powell, head of global campaigns and stakeholder engagement for social impact at Dentsu. “We need to move from ambition to action and the onus of responsibility is on brands and business.”

Overall, the climate movement is becoming more organized, von Sturmer observed, but the industry’s relationship with fossil fuel companies continues to be a hangup for more in-depth conversations among holding companies.

On social media, less than 1% of the overall Cannes-related mentions and interactions focused on the environment or climate change, according to social media analytics firm Sprout Social.

“The greenwashing in the Palais is giving these brands the opportunity to pose as sustainability leaders while representing and growing the world’s worst polluters,” von Sturmer said.