Why is a fossil fuel firm allowed to sponsor a high-profile children’s art competition?

Game Changers: The tide is turning against advertising and sponsorship by fossil fuel companies like Texaco

Offaly man and woodworker Tom Roche is a long-standing activist. He founded Just Forests in 1989, well before the idea of a social enterprise was born. Stewardship is a word that he thinks about a lot, and his kinship with fellow woodworkers wherever there are forests. We should be stewards not extractors.

He set his sights on the Texaco Children’s Art Competition a number of years ago. Why is a fossil fuel company allowed to sponsor such a high profile children’s art competition, he asked? The competition has produced dazzling art. I have been that parent marvelling at the talent of children the same ages as mine where our own efforts were still at the finger painting stage.

Longevity has grown like moss over what we think of as an Irish institution, 69 years on the go. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating talented young artists. But the real winner every year has been the Texaco oil brand and its US parent company Chevron.

Working with documentary maker Peadar King and human rights activist Colm Regan last month, Roche launched SpoArts Washing calling out an uncomfortable truth. Fossil fuels don’t deserve the soft focus that sponsorship deals can bring. We need to be clear-eyed about the urgency of ending fossil fuel extraction, and Texaco’s sports and arts sponsorships give it a halo of community, putting it into the hearts of parishes, playing pitches and schools.

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“Chevron is a class apart in how it just wields very sophisticated tools of greenwashing,” New York lawyer Steven Donziger told the launch webinar, speaking from his apartment where until almost exactly a year ago he was under house arrest, wearing an ankle brace after Chevron pursued him through the courts following his work on behalf of indigenous communities in Ecuador. They are masters at “penetrating the information ecosystem”, Donziger said.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called out the advertising and PR businesses for their role in delaying the urgent shift away from fossil fuels. “Advertisement and brand-building strategies may also attempt to deflect corporate responsibility,” the IPCC has said.

This year France has banned fossil-fuel advertising. Last year 350 advertising and PR firms joined a movement called Clean Creatives, refusing to work for fossil fuel firms or their trade associations.

Sponsorship buys “social licence” to continue polluting activities. We are the society that is granting this licence and it’s up to us to withdraw it. Kudos to all the brilliant artists and winners over the decades. None of this takes from the beauty of their achievements. But it’s up to us as citizens, parents, teachers, editors and journalists to find a better way to reward the talent of our youngest artists and local sports teams.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests