Should Brands Be Allowed at Global Climate Talks?

Should Brands Be Allowed at Global Climate Talks?

In a resort town on the tip of the Sinai peninsula, global leaders are gathering this week to hash out how, exactly, they’re going to meet the climate goals they set last year in Glasgow.

The meeting is officially titled the Conference of Parties 27, or COP27. It’s a convoluted name that refers to all the entities that are “party” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is the 27th time they’ve met.

At the opening ceremony on Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned of the fast-approaching “tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.”

Stressing the global community’s failure to curb overall greenhouse gas emissions, he told thousands of state leaders, diplomats and officials: “We are on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

But governments aren’t the only entities present in Sharm El-Sheikh this week. They’re also not the only point of leverage for climate action. Brands have also descended upon the Egyptian city for the week—and not everyone’s pleased about it.

Delegations do the work of multilateral negotiations inside the convention center. It’s dubbed the Blue Zone.

There’s also a sideshow across the street in the Green Zone. That’s where businesses, nongovernmental organizations, academics and artists are invited to host their own booths or events. Those groups meet and promote their own climate messages in a new lotus flower-shaped event center.

That’s where some of event’s the major brand sponsors will be touting their sustainability initiatives. Vodafone, Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, GM, Infinity Power, Egyptair, Bloomberg, Afreximbank and Orascom Construction are “main partners,” according to the COP website. IBM and Siemens are “partners,” while Siemens Energy, Egyptian real estate firm Sodic, Coca-Cola, Cisco, Google, Mashreq, Adsero and Hassan Allam Holding are listed as “supporters.”

COP27 organizers did not respond to Adweek’s request for clarification on what these different categories mean. Organizers also declined to say how much each brand paid for their sponsorship slot.

Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, businesses worked alongside the official negotiations to develop their own plans to address climate change. The agreed-on goal of curbing emissions came down to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius—a target that is no longer within reach, according to reports.

Over a dozen deals were struck among private sector players to fund low-emissions energy and climate tech solutions. Other agreements pledged to improve climate- and sustainability-related disclosures in finance and to halt deforestation, to name a few.

This year, observers told Adweek that they hope to see more of those pacts emerge from the talks in addition to clear and transparent updates from the alliances made last year.

A major focus of this year’s COP, though, has to do with who’s going to pay for the loss and damage that climate change is inflicting on poorer and more vulnerable nations.

This marks the first time an African country has hosted the talks. African leaders and activists are hoping that’ll mean more focus on supporting the continent as it continues to grapple with deadly droughts, sea level rise, coastal erosion and food insecurity—all of which are exacerbated by climate change.

So, what should brands be doing in the midst of all this?

They should be paying attention. But they probably shouldn’t be doing much in the way of advertising, according to some observers.

Despite stated intentions among brands, the priorities of how they showcase their approach to combating climate change leaves much to be desired, according to Selina Donald, founder and chief sustainability adviser at sustainability consultancy The Bulb.

“I don’t see how spending insane amounts of money to build exhibition stands to showcase what brands are doing on sustainability is sustainable,” Donald said. “COP should just be about that conference room with governments and key speakers and just getting shit done.”

Still, Donald worked with Microsoft on the brand’s COP27 presence. She advised the software giant on how to keep its emissions low and which materials to use for its booth in the Green Zone. The booth features a device bar and small meeting area, the brand said, which was constructed using Forest Stewardship Council-certified plywood and recycled vinyl flooring.

The goal, a Microsoft spokesperson said via email, is to “help people and organizations better understand the transformative potential for technology to help solve many of today’s complex climate challenges.”

On Monday, the brand announced that it will be expanding its AI for Good Research Labs to Kenya and Egypt in an effort to improve climate data on the continent.

That kind of activity represents a growing awareness among brands that they need to make tangible efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. On a purely practical level, brands appear to recognize the certain deleterious effects unchecked global warming will have on business.

“The good news is that more and more leaders—especially in Europe—consider sustainability and climate change as the No. 1 disruption factor for their business,” Thomas Husson, vp and principal analyst at market research firm Forrester, told Adweek.

“With rising energy costs, firms realize that this is impacting their business models today and they have to act on it now,” Husson continued. “I see a trend where firms stop considering environment as just the E in an institutional ESG approach, but as a true opportunity to reinvent themselves and develop a new competitive advantage.”

The central risk for brand participation in a climate event is, of course, allegations of hypocrisy.

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship has come under serious fire from activists, including a petition to kick the brand out of COP. Led by sustainability consultant and environmental activist Georgia Elliot-Smith, the petition gained nearly 240,000 signatories ahead of the talks. Last week, U.S.-based environmental groups Beyond Plastics and Just-Zero also put out an official call for COP to ditch Coca-Cola as a sponsor.

“COP27 is supposed to focus on solutions for fighting catastrophic climate crisis,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former regional EPA administrator, said in a statement. “How can a major plastic polluter be in a leadership position at such an important climate conference? It’s well past time that our country’s policy makers and advocates commit to holding corporations accountable for the impact their products and policies have on our climate and environment.”

In an annual ranking of brands contributing the most to global plastic pollution, Coca-Cola has ranked No. 1 for the last four years.

Coca-Cola did not respond to Adweek’s request for comment for this story. While it’s pledged to make all its packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, an October report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation showed that the goal is unlikely to be met. The report tracks progress toward a “global commitment” to address plastic pollution and was signed by 500 companies including Coca-Cola. It also showed that total plastic use has increased by 5% since 2018.

“I am utterly dismayed that the world’s largest plastic polluter was allowed to sponsor the talks,” Belinda Noble, founder of climate-focused communications network Comms Declare, told Adweek.

“[It’s as if] nobody at the U.N. knows plastic production will lock in high greenhouse gas emissions even as overall demand for oil and gas declines,” she lamented. “Surely any sponsor of COP should be a beacon to other companies about how to do things right.”

Images Powered by Shutterstock