Solitaire Townsend is leading an ethical advertising revolution

The ‘X-industry’ is wrecking the planet. Solitaire Townsend is calling time.

Oliver Pelling
June 27, 2022
8 min read
Wind turbines

“When you think of the industries responsible for climate change, you probably summon up an image of an oil rig, right? Maybe even a coal mine? Or a megafarm?” posited Solitaire Townsend to a captive TED audience in October 2021.

“But there’s one industry that’s never mentioned in that list, even though every other industry depends upon it,” she continued. “[It’s] the professional services of advertising and PR firms, big management consultancies, corporate lawyers and lobbyists.”

Townsend pointed out that the professional services industry is worth over $2 trillion a year. She called it the ‘X-industry’, where ‘X’ stands for ‘influence’. Over the course of the next nine minutes of her talk (which has clocked over 1.3 million views), Townsend made the argument that the X industry is influencing every single carbon emission, and quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) greasing the wheels of the fossil fuel industry. 

And the figures don’t lie. Among other mind-boggling statistics involving cash and decades, the world’s five biggest oil companies have spent over $3.6 billion on reputation-building advertising since the 1990s. And let’s not forget that it was an advertising agency who, on behalf of client British Petroleum, invented the idea of the personal ‘carbon footprint’ in the first place – successfully shifting perceived climate responsibility from big oil to the individual in the process. “If money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns, then P.R. campaigns and snappy catchphrases are the kindling,” wrote environmentalist Bill McKibben in 2020. 

And yet, despite everything we know, the X-industry’s dalliances with fossil fuels have rarely been held to account. 

Solitaire Townsend is a lot of things. She’s a TED Talker, a sustainability sage, a columnist, an author and an advocate for pretty much anything and anyone that needs advocating for. She’s a deep thinker, a compulsive problem-solver and a career activist (she attended her first protest, against the dumping of nuclear waste, when she was 13).   

“I’m actually more afraid of fatalism than I am of climate change. Climate change is chemistry. And we actually have all the solutions we need to [solve] climate change."

Townsend is also the co-founder and chief solutionist at Futerra, the ‘change agency’ she started in 2001. What began as a sustainability consultancy has since grown into a fully-fledged marketing, advertising and communications powerhouse with offices in London, New York and Mexico City. (It’s also a training academy, sustainable development accelerator and a product incubator.)

The agency’s growth into marketing and advertising was organic enough (if they’re helping an organisation do business that’s better for people and planet, why not help it tell and share those stories, too?), and Townsend has spent the last two decades of her life building an example of what the advertising industry – and the wider X-industry – could be, if it were able to grow an ethical backbone. 

In Futerra’s early days, Townsend learned that many advertising agencies, as well as pitching against Futerra for work on climate-aligned or otherwise progressive NGOs, were also working on projects for oil and gas companies. 

For Townsend, her cognitive dissonance wasn’t just triggered by the fact that these agencies were seemingly fine with playing both sides, but by the human cost of leaving creatives or account directors with no choice but to work on projects that didn’t align with their values. “I’ve seen the toll that took on a lot of people who came to work with us,” Townsend tells WorkforClimate over the phone from her office in London. “It just got to the point of going, ‘I’ve got to call this out. It’s not okay.’” 

Solitaire Townsend, co-founder and chief solutionist, Futerra.

Townsend has, more or less, been calling it out ever since. She’s been doing it explicitly in her TED Talks and columns for the likes of Forbes, the Guardian and Reuters, and she’s been leading by example through her work with Futerra.

But going toe-to-toe with a $2 trillion dollar industry is no easy feat, especially when the apocalyptic and anxiety-inducing climate headlines continue to flow, thick and fast, into our lives via our numerous fixed, moveable and omnipresent devices. 

Luckily, Townsend is also the co-founder of the ‘Climate Optimist’ movement and the author of a book called ‘The Happy Hero: How to Change Your Life by Changing the World’. But she isn’t some self-help guru with vague ideas about positive thinking: she has lived experience of how leaning into climate solutions can actually change your life for the better.

“There’s huge value in remaining positively-minded,” she says, before clarifying that you can be positive and angry. According to Townsend, the opposite of positivity isn’t anger. It’s fatalism. The idea that there’s nothing we can do, so we won’t do anything. “I’m actually more afraid of fatalism than I am of climate change,” she says. “Climate change is chemistry. And we actually have all the solutions we need to [solve] climate change. We haven’t got them everywhere, and we’re fighting a big fight to get them everywhere, but we have the solutions.” 

"...the reason that [change is] happening is because somebody just wouldn’t fucking shut up about it. So just don’t fucking shut up about it.”

Townsend acknowledges that trying to change a system from within is difficult. Whether you’re an advertising creative trying to get your CEO to fire its fossil fuel clients or a logistics manager trying to decarbonise a carbon-intensive supply chain, antagonising for change isn’t a linear process. And the process of changemaking will look different for everyone.

For those still looking for their changemaking superpower, Townsend suggests “shopping around” for models that fit your personality and strengths. Her own model is unfussy and effective, and can be summarised in two words: “Charm and tenacity,” she says. “You’re not a minister trying to save souls, you’re a doctor trying to get your bosses and colleagues to change their behaviour. A doctor, in this context, says, ‘what’s the thing I can do to get this person to change their behaviour? Is this going to save us money over time? Is there a marketing advantage to this?’ It’s about finding ways to sell your solution, being charming about it, and doing it in a way that fits with the way that people are thinking.”

And the tenacity bit? 

“Never, ever give up,” says Townsend. “Of the vast majority of change I see happening in organisations, there might be a great business case for it, there might be an absolute necessity to do it, and there might be a lot of support for it, but the reason that it’s happening is because somebody just wouldn’t fucking shut up about it. So just don’t fucking shut up about it.”

XR protestors, not shutting up about it. | Photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere

Townsend uses the example of how children deploy “pester power” to irritate their parents into giving in (clarifying that many of the other things children do – like throwing tantrums – obviously won’t fly in a corporate context). “But that absolute, unrelenting, constantly raising your point… It sounds like such a simple thing, but that tenacity is the most powerful tool you have in your organisation,” she says. “That goes for making sustainable change, but it also goes for most things in life.” 

It’s a bold call to arms. But Townsend is quick to point out that the work of changemaking can’t and won’t be for everyone, all the time. Understanding the complexities of our humanity in the midst of this work is a significant part of building truly inclusive future communities. “Our tenacity and commitment to change must sit alongside safeguarding the people involved in our movement,” she says. “If you’re struggling with anxiety, with depression, with mental health – nobody expects you, I don’t expect you, to burn yourself up if you actually need some time out. Everything I’m saying comes with a flip side, a disclaimer, which is basically: ‘except when it’s not conducive to your mental health or safety to do so.” 

“I grew up poor, so I’m not a big fan of sacrifice. But I’m also not a big fan of burning the planet alive. So it’s really important to me to find substitutes, not sacrifices.” 

In the midst of all this talk about sustainability and change, Townsend also firmly believes that neither of those things have to mean sacrifice. In fact, one of the reasons she works in sustainability is because she’d like “many, many more” human beings to have access to comfort, joy, leisure and self-indulgence. “I grew up poor, so I’m not a big fan of sacrifice,” she says. “But I’m also not a big fan of burning the planet alive. So it’s really important to me to find substitutes, not sacrifices.” 

She gives the example of ‘swishing’ parties – clothes swapping parties that Futerra kicked off nearly a decade ago and have since become a global phenomenon. The premise is simple: instead of consuming new things, fashion-lovers meetup semi-regularly (“there’d be champagne, there’d be stylists!” says Townsend) and swap clothes. The dopamine hit is secured, aesthetic ambitions are met, and the planet gets away unscathed. “Let’s be honest, we’re just one of the great apes,” says Townsend. “We’re animals. We’re nothing more. And animals like to be well fed, they like to be comfortable, and they like displays of status. We still need to find ways to allow for all of that.” 

Futerra’s current brand and business mission is to ‘Make the Anthropocene Awesome’, which is both rallying cry for climate-concerned individuals and a practical, 100-page manifesto that details ‘The Awesome Anthropocene Goals’, which includes things like ‘Half the World is Wild’, ‘Consumption is Regenerative’ and ‘Human Rights for the Future’.

If you’re looking for a blueprint of what a people and planet-oriented X-industry could look like, Futerra is it.  But Townsend and Futerra aren’t alone in their ambition for the X industry to reorient itself in favour of people and the planet. Far from it. Comms Declare is advocating for a fossil-fuel-free advertising industry in Australia; Creatives for Climate is harnessing the power of over 2,000 ‘creative activists’ to work on solutions, call out greenwashing and more besides; and Greenpeace protestors have been kicking up a fuss at adland’s most coveted awards ceremony. The tide is turning. And this isn’t fringe thinking anymore. 

“The anthropocene is us. All of us,” says the jolly narrator of Futerra’s ‘Make the Anthropocene Awesome’ video clip.  “A species whose DNA is made of mistakes. And miracles. Sure, we made the problems. But we are the solution. And you? You’re the answer.”

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