Reflecting on: What is Artwashing?

13th April 2022

Image of decorative picture frames containing pictures of fossil fuel infrastructure. Text reads: 'Reflecting on... What is Artwashing?'

23rd March 2022: This Green Tease event investigated the concept of 'artwashing' with contributions from artist Sokari Douglas-Camp, Chris Garrard from research and advocacy organisation Culture Unstained and Duncan Meisel from the campaign Clean Creatives.

‘Artwashing’ is a term that has been popularised to describe the ways that major polluters and other organisations that cause environmental damage might use the arts to clean up their public image. The term has been at the centre of recent debates about issues like sponsorship from oil and gas companies in the arts , fossil fuel publicity methods and how the arts might unknowingly be used as a way to obstruct progress on climate change.

This event used the term as a jumping off point for a discussion about how culture and creativity might be used as a means of inhibiting action on climate change and how we should respond to these situations, which can be difficult to navigate. We looked at how people in the arts might avoid the sector being used for potentially regressive ends and how those working on climate change might find and address instances of artwashing.

Speakers

The event started with contributions from our three speakers.

Sokari Douglas Camp CBE is a Nigerian-born British sculptor who works with recycled oil barrels in response to oil extraction in her birthplace in the Niger Delta. She discussed her personal experiences and her work that seeks to draw attention directly to the harm caused by fossil fuel companies in the region.

Dr Chris Garrard is a composer, researcher and campaigner and co-director of Culture Unstained, a research, engagement and campaigning organisation which aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture. He discussed how sponsorship can function as a form of artwashing and how this issue is entangled with other injustices and problems.

Duncan Meisel is the Director of Clean Creatives, a project bringing together ad and PR agencies, their staff, and clients to end work for the fossil fuel industry. He discussed how PR from the fossil fuel industry can be deliberately misleading and why creatives withdrawing their support for the sector can make a difference.

A video of the three speakers, including subtitles, is available below.

Discussion

This was followed by some discussion time together followed by smaller discussions in breakout rooms. Attendees were provided with some visual prompts for discussion, which are available to view here. Some of the key points that came up during discussion were:

  • It’s important to be aware of the international context when thinking about what we can do in Scotland. Sokari shared some stories from the Niger delta of deaths and injuries occurring through unsafe oil extraction and burning that provided a useful counter to discussions around fossil fuel sponsorship in the UK, which can feel quite abstract.
  • We live in a society that has been largely built on fossil fuels. As such, we should no be surprised when examples of entanglements between the arts and fossil fuels come up. The arts are no different from any other field in this respect.
  • Within Scotland, we should be aware of different local contexts. For example, fossil fuel sponsorship has a different history and is understood differently in Aberdeen, where a large portion of the population work in jobs associated with fossil fuel extraction.
  • One group discussed examples of artwashing in products aimed at children and discussed how cultural products play a major role in how our perception of social norms develops as children.
  • Another group focused on who should be involved in decisions about fossil fuel sponsorship and the importance of having discussions with a wide range of groups including museums staff and frontline communities.

About Green Tease

grey oblique lines growing darker, then a green line with an arrow pointing right and overlaid text reading 'culture SHIFT'The Green Tease events series and network is a project organised by Creative Carbon Scotland, bringing together people from arts and environmental backgrounds to discuss, share expertise, and collaborate. Green Tease forms part of our culture/SHIFT programme. 

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

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