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#youthwashing: the fossil fuel industries latest marketing tool


Almost a year ago, youth climate activist and founder of the Fridays for Future youth strikes movement, Greta Thunberg, hit hard at global governments and their addiction to fossil fuels. She did not falter as she delivered her message straight to source, making clear to world leaders that future generations were at stake. 

Greta’s message, although not the first of its kind, built on years of indigenous, frontline and global south voices who have been calling out global leaders inaction for decades, many of whom are also young. Yet Greta’s message struck a chord with people worldwide, hitting home the personal responsibility of decision-makers, if not for all young people, then for their own children’s livelihoods. Ever since, politicians have been frequently referencing Greta as a means to further their political agendas. Even Trump had something to say about her during Greta’s recent visit to the US.

Whether the “Greta Factor” is a political bargaining chip to appeal to sympathetic voters, or a genuine recognition of the need to take action on climate change depends on the credibility of our world leaders. But for fossil fuel giants, the situation is unlikely to be well-intentioned.  

BP's "keep advancing" campaign features many young faces

Oil, coal and gas industries, who have profited from the climate crisis for decades, seem to have adopted a new tactic to clean up their image. After facing backlash for trying to convince consumers that they aren't that bad through greenwashing: using environmentally friendly wording, colours, and branding in huge funded marketing campaigns. Fossil fuel companies are now using a new tactic to try to clean up their image. 

Using young people as the face of their campaigns seems to be their latest marketing ploy: with BP sponsoring the “One Young World Summit”,  Shell’s #MakeTheFuture campaign, and the International Student Energy Summit sponsored by all the big names in the business. Are we waving goodbye to the age of greenwashing, and hello to the age of youthwashing? 

Whether it’s physically using young people as the face of their campaigns and promotions, or using narratives which point towards saving the future – it’s hard to argue that fossil fuel companies latest marketing trend is anything other than a blatant attempt to convince the general public that they are in-line with the youth environmental movement. Despite being the very targets of such a movement, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and friends have been rebranding by throwing their money, imagery and hashtags towards young people. 

Perhaps they really do want to #MakeTheFuture and they see young people as critical to that? But whether the public will respond more positively to this kind of marketing than the last is still unclear, although previous greenwashing tactics suggest it is unlikely to be a success. 

Shell's "Make The Future" campaign is awash with young people in its advertising

As the global youth strikes for climate continue, and as Greta’s US tour advances, what seems clear is that young people will remain critical to the climate agenda from here on out. 

Will the fossil fuel industry jump all-aboard the youth train by taking concrete action to decarbonise, demonstrating their genuine attempts to change the course of history, or will they continue to engage in public image improving sponsorship? That remains to be seen. 

Taking Action 

Here at the UK Youth Climate Coalition alongside other young people, we won’t let this #youthwashing go unnoticed. That’s why we’ve launched a public campaign of our own, calling out the misuse of youth on our new twitter account (@youthwashing). Please give us a follow, and be sure to share any examples of #youthwashing with us, we can’t let this behaviour go unchecked! 


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