Could airline sponsorships be targeted by environmental groups?
Protests against United's sponsorship of UK's Pride Festival and KLM's sponsorship of the Van Gogh Museum are only the beginning.
The annual Edinburgh Book Festival is currently underway in the Scottish capital. The big news should be about the books. However, the event has been in the media for very different reasons after headline author Greta Thunberg declined to appear.
Thunberg did so following a piece by Scottish investigative news journal, The Ferret, which revealed that event sponsor Baillie Gifford had £5 billion “invested in companies which make money from the oil, coal or gas sectors at the end of 2022.”
After Thunberg withdrew, more than 50 authors, including high-profile figures such as Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Mikaela Loach, Katherine Rundell and Gary Younge, wrote a letter to the Festival organisers demanding that Baillie Gifford be dropped as the main sponsor in 2024, threatening a wider boycott if that doesn’t happen.
A thoughtful piece in The Guardian by Charlotte Higgins puts the issue into perspective.
First of all, Higgins says that arts events obviously need sponsors to survive.
Higgins also points out that as a percentage of total investments, Baillie Giifford’s exposure to the fossil fuel industry is not that high. Just two percent is invested in companies that make more than five percent of revenues from oil and gas-related activities.
So Baillie Gifford is a world away from someone like oil giant BP, which was under fire for years due to its sponsorship of London’s British Museum, an arrangement that finally ended this June.
The first signs of airline sponsorships getting the BP Treatment
In 2020, we wrote about the protests that the British Museum was facing due to the BP links, predicting that the perception of aviation being a polluting industry could lead to airline sponsorships similarly coming under fire. After all, unlike Baillie Gifford, airlines are almost still totally exposed to fossil fuels, needing oil to continue flying.
Fast forward to today, and we can see the first signs of that happening.
Earlier this year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was forced to defend United Airlines’ sponsorship of the city’s ‘Pride Festival’, after Assembly Member Zack Polanski’s strongly worded objection:
“London should be leading the way with the radical change required, ending all fossil fuel subsidies, and prioritising the rights of the marginalised, not putting carbon polluters at the forefront of our Pride.”
According to Polanski, the United sponsorship of the Pride Festival was a case of “major climate polluter pinkwashing.”
Following these criticisms, the climate activist group ‘Just Stop Oil’ threatened to disrupt the event specifically due to the participation of United.
Meanwhile, last year climate activists in the Netherlands, including from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, sent an open letter to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum about KLM being a sponsor.
An excerpt from the letter:
“Thanks to this sponsorship you normalize flying in times of a climate crisis, while the reality is simple: to keep the climate goals within reach, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced quickly – and that also applies to aviation.”
Those two examples are only the start. We expect to see a lot more over the coming years.
Airlines need to be prepared. Here is what they should do when sponsoring events:
1 - Audit what it is, where it’s happening and who is taking part. If Greta Thunberg or another high-profile climate activist is appearing, they will almost certainly boycott the event.
2 - Most importantly, don’t use your association with the event to make any sustainability claims that can’t 100% be backed up, ideally by a credible third party. This is something we talked about in our greenwashing report last year and a number of articles we’ve produced on the topic as well.
3 - Be prepared. Climate activists increasingly see airlines in the same overall category as fossil fuel companies, and the chances are increasingly likely in future that sponsorships and brand associations will be challenged.
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