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Staff at Immediate Media Are Calling on Bosses to Ban Fossil Fuel Ads

Employees at the magazine business, which produces titles for 'Top Gear' and 'Gardener's World', don't want to be complicit in green-washing.

by Adam McGibbon
23 October 2019, 8:00am

Grafitti sprayed on the walls of the Shell offices in London by Extinction Rebellion protesters in April (Photo by Chris Bethell)

You probably haven’t heard of Immediate Media, but you will know some of their titles. The London and Bristol-based media house publish around 70 brands and reach 26 million consumers every month. They run the BBC Good Food website, publish Gardener’s World magazine and run the Radio Times, Britain’s most profitable magazine brand.

Immediate do "special interest" brands, aimed at foodies, hobbyists, and more. Which makes all the more remarkable that Immediate’s staff – who also publish petrolhead bible Top Gear Magazine – are demanding that their company take bold climate action.

During the summer, a group of staff, calling themselves the "Immediate Climate Action Group", wrote an open letter to Tom Bureau, Immediate’s CEO, signed by 136 employees. They called for the company to take a range of actions. They want the company to commit to carbon neutrality, talk to their audiences more about climate change and, crucially, for all Immediate brands to stop taking advertising from fossil fuel companies.

IM Climate Action started when Wendy Lim, a user experience architect at the company, read last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, where the world’s scientists told us we have one last chance to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. "I felt there was a disconnect between just going to work as normal, and having that knowledge about how bad things were, and the fact that we are nowhere near tackling it," Lim says. She started to urge other employees to come and speak to her about climate change. "It started from a very personal place. I met loads of people from across the company who were concerned too."

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Immediate Media staff protesting outside their Bristol offices last month calling for their company to take bold climate action. (Photo credit: Immediate Climate Action)

From there, it snowballed. Along with the growing number of employees signing their open letter, IM Climate Action have been staging eleven-minute "climate strikes" every week during work hours, echoing the action being taken by school children all over the world. The eleven-minute strikes signify the eleven years that scientists tell us we have left to carry out rapid and far-reaching changes to meet the global goals agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference.

IM Climate Action are part of a new wave in the climate battle. As climate concern escalates in step with the crisis, employees are gaining the confidence to demand bold leadership from their employers. Over 1,500 Amazon workers walked out last month over their company’s climate inaction and ties to fossil fuel companies. Tech workers at Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft also joined last month’s Global Climate Strike, where adults joined youth climate strikers en masse for the first time. IM Climate Action list the Amazon workers as one of their inspirations.

The group emphasise that their employer has been supportive of their action and receptive to some of their calls, and they praise Immediate for having an open, friendly culture. In a statement, Immediate Media noted they have responded to IM Climate Action’s calls by inviting them to join a company-wide sustainability group, bringing in consultants to make the business greener, and are supporting staff taking part in the weekly climate strikes. There are also serious discussions about becoming a zero-carbon company. However, there is little movement yet on what could be the boldest and most effective action the company could take – refusing all fossil fuel advertising.

IM Climate Action’s call to end fossil fuel advertising is part of an increasing trend. Fossil fuel companies are becoming increasingly toxic in public life, due to their well-publicised responsibility for climate change, their decades-long denial of the problem, and their ongoing sabotage of political action to solve the problem. IM Climate Action’s open letter asked their CEO, "Is it morally acceptable to allow these companies to use our platforms and audience reach?"

For a growing number of institutions, the answer is no. A Swedish newspaper, Dagens ETC,said last month it would stop taking adverts from fossil fuel firms, saying the ban was "crucial for our credibility." Over 20 advertising agencies are now refusing to take fossil fuel advertising briefs in response to a call from Extinction Rebellion. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre recently caved to public pressure and ended sponsorship deals with BP and Shell. Over 1,000 global institutions worth a total of $11.4 trillion (£8.8 trillion) have pulled their investment funds from fossil fuel companies.

Fossil fuel advertising now very rarely features any fossil fuel – BP, Shell and others try to portray themselves as part of the clean energy solution, despite still being hellbent on digging up even more coal, oil and gas. If Immediate publicly refuse fossil ads, this would be powerful leadership that could carry more weight than anything else they do. Letting the world know that fossil fuel adverts are immoral, misleading and socially harmful could pave the way for even bolder climate action, and others would follow. "We are big influencers in society," says Rosemary Collins, an Immediate staff writer who works on the magazine for the BBC’s popular genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are. "A lot of people consume our brands. They really respect us. If we took a strong stance on climate action, it will have a big impact."

For Immediate, there is a lot to fear in continuing to take fossil adverts. Their brand credibility is at risk. Immediate publish the magazine and website for the BBC franchise Gardener's World, whose much-loved host Monty Don has been outspoken about climate change. They also publish the BBC Countryfile magazine, which is running increasingly political features about climate change. This opens Immediate up to charges of hypocrisy as climate concern inevitably increases – from their own stakeholders as well as their consumers.

Sources at all-staff meetings in Immediate say that some of the talking points from management around their reluctance to stop taking fossil adverts include the claim that fossil fuel companies invest heavily in renewable energy. This is false, with Financial Times research showing that oil majors invest only tiny percentages in renewable energy. For example, Shell have spent only around 0.25 percent of their capital expenditure this decade on clean energy. BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and others focus all their advertising on these tiny investments, using them as a smokescreen to obscure their unreformed plans to dig up more oil and gas than the planet can take. In this way, Immediate Media are arguably complicit in helping fossil fuel companies launder their filthy reputation.

The campaign continues. Immediate Media have an opportunity to become a climate leader – IM Climate Action will not give up in pushing them to become one.

Rosemary Collins has a message for staff at other companies who want to take climate action. "It’s been great to find a way to reach my colleagues about this and find out there are lots of people who think the same way as me. We need to keep building on that. If more workplaces did this, it could be really powerful."

@AdamMcGibbon

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