Greenwashers: Stop Trying to Recruit Gen-Z

It’s 2023, and in this year alone, Shell has paid influencers to show themselves filling cars with gas, BP has dialed back on their climate pledge while simultaneously marketing net zero progress, and a $1 billion lawsuit was filed against Delta Airlines for misleading consumers with sustainability claims. While there has been a substantial increase in discussions around greenwashing in recent years, it’s important to note that there are other actors beyond corporations who are to blame for making false claims about sustainability. Fossil fuel companies want the best of the best to do their marketing, and they often hire advertising agencies who are skilled in crafting narratives to do the dirty work of greenwashing for them.

The campaigns that creative agencies develop mislead the public, understate the urgency of the climate crisis, and exaggerate their efforts to find solutions. This issue has become so prevalent that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has pinpointed advertising agencies as an antagonist in the battle against the climate crisis.

We are already seeing patterns of content created to appeal to youth on the accounts of RyanAir, which creates humorous and viral TikToks about flying, and Shell, which posts social media graphics about their company via a medium that was once popularized by Gen-Z to spread information about social issues. This marketing has a twofold aim- to appeal to Gen-Z consumers and align their companies with Gen-Z ideals in hopes of attracting new talent. The issue of corporations marketing themselves to a younger generation does not stop at content. Gen-Z will soon make up about 30% of the global workforce, making them an increasingly important demographic for advertising agencies seeking fresh talent. Today, advertising agencies are also heavily recruiting young people to create messaging that resonates with Gen-Z.

One key reason advertising agencies are enlisting Gen Z-ers for such projects is due to Gen-Z’s innate understanding of digital platforms and social media. This generation grew up in the age of social awareness and climate change discussions, making them adept at crafting messages that resonate with younger audiences. However, this also means that they are more susceptible to being used as a veneer for companies looking to improve their public image while continuing environmentally harmful practices.

Today, several advertising agencies known to work with fossil fuel companies have publicly declared their desire to work with Gen-Z talent. Edelman, which created campaigns for the lobbyist American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and Exxon, has a Gen-Z lab of 100 young employees advising their messaging and strategy. Dentsu, a global agency that has worked for Chevron, has an entry-level jobs page that advertises a “Gen Z belonging group” for young job seekers.

The decision to involve Gen Z-ers in campaigns for industries with questionable environmental and social records perpetuates unsustainable practices and exploits the idealism of young professionals. Encouraging young talent to work on projects for fossil fuel companies inevitably removes candidates from hiring pools for other jobs in the climate space.

While Gen-Zers bring valuable skills and fresh perspectives to creative agencies, they should be given opportunities that align with their ideals and values, which largely reflect environmental consciousness and a desire to create a better world. Agencies that work for fossil fuel companies and simultaneously attempt to appeal to Gen-Z are deceiving young talent that are desperately needed in the fight against climate change. These agencies cannot honestly or ethically pose themselves as forward-thinkers that care about or want to include the next generation while also working for corporations that directly contribute to the climate crisis. The demand for advertising agencies is clear: pledge to stop working with fossil fuel companies if you want Gen-Z to work for you, or stop hiring Gen-Zers altogether if you are not willing to let them change your practices.

RCC Fellow – Sophia Donskoi – University of Florida

Sophia Donskoi is a Master’s student at the University of Florida studying Public Interest Communication focused on providing opportunities for young people to work in climate communications. She graduated from UCLA, summa cum laude, with a B.A. in Public Policy and Environmental Systems and Society and is the former Assistant General Manager of UCLA Radio, a student-run nonprofit, where she produced several environmental radio programs.