Going Green at SXSW 2023


Make Honey



Back in 2019, sustainability started to feature more prominently on the South by Southwest (SXSW) agenda. Then, after an enforced two-year break thanks to the pandemic, last year saw the appearance of a dedicated climate change track.

This year, the topic became truly front-and-center of the agenda.

That reinforced something that we all now know: that for the advertising and creative industries, climate change-related issues and sustainability are core to our business.

The cold treatment

At SXSW, punters could try brand new ice cream flavours from Ben & Jerry’s, ‘Carbon and Cream Menu’.

The selection included “Shell’s half baked net zero claims”, “Chevron’s climate catastrophe crunch” and “Exxon’s Crimintal Deceit”. The flavors took aim at perceived greenwashing claims from Big Oil, with the whole stunt being a collaboration between Clean Creatives (the group of ad industry workers which looks to persuade agencies to stop working with fossil fuel clients) and the ice cream brand.

Each ice cream description also tries to publicly shame the firms working with those oil companies. In Shell’s case Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and Leo Burnett were all called out.

Clean Creatives say that the SXSW collaboration with Ben & Jerry’s is only the start. Their latest LinkedIn post strongly hints that you’ll be seeing their greenwashing ice cream truck in Cannes in June.

A different approach

If you went a bit further into town from the Clean Creatives ice cream booth, you would in fact have found Shell at its own dedicated venue, Shell House at SXSW. Shell House was used by the oil giant to showcase various energy and next-generation fuel projects, and to host talks on subjects like electric vehicle adoption.

It was a no-expenses-spared affair; one could have breakfast and lunch there for free. As a result, it’s unclear how far the green messaging hit home, as from talking to some of the guests, the free lunch is why they turned up every day.

Overall, the climate change track of talks at SXSW included over 50 sessions, ranging from “brands shaking up alcohol’s carbon footprint” to “urban heat islands: why cool roofs are a hot topic.”

Futurologist Amy Webb also had a session on energy and climate change, releasing her Future Trends Report, which is always one of the highlights of the Festival.

All About Eve

The Creative Industries Expo, an exhibition that runs as part of SXSW, also had sustainability on show. There, the star was Eve.

Spun out of Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, Eve is an ‘eVTOL’ or electric air taxi company. This is a new category of small all-electric aircraft that takes off vertically and flies horizontally. Think of George Jetson on his daily commute.

Eve had a model of its cabin on display at the exhibition, asking visitors to try it out and give feedback on everything from legroom to the ease of getting inside. Eve hasn’t yet named its new aircraft; as part of the survey, visitors were also asked to come up with suggestions.

It will be intriguing to see what the end result is – the UK provides plenty of examples of why crowdsourcing names isn’t always a good idea.

Sustainability and SXSW: what’s next?

SXSW was yet another reminder that sustainability will become an increasingly important part of our industry. Just look at German airline Lufthansa, which saw its ads being struck down in the UK when the ASA upheld a greenwashing complaint.

This is also a signpost that agencies themselves will come under increasing pressure to divest themselves of clients perceived to be polluters, as with tobacco companies 20-30 years ago.

For sustainability comms experts like me, the expense of going to Austin was worth every penny. Of 10 events, this was easily the most relevant and useful SXSW I’ve been to.

For others, the chances are that SXSW has something relevant to you, with conference strands from cannabis to culture.

At the conference, I overheard someone saying that SXSW is what he had hoped Cannes would be. I’ve never been to Cannes, but I find SXSW an incredibly rich experience where you meet a huge variety of people from all over the world – not just agency bosses.