In the run-up to COP26, we wanted to develop a digital campaign that highlighted the political capital held by industries that devastate the environment. Over 160 influential voices and 100 organisations from 15 different countries joined – this is how it happened.

The undue influence of polluters on policy makers is a complex topic that is relatively unspoken about in the online climate space – so, how could we start this conversation in a way that would engage vital voices in the run up to the COP26 climate summit?

Enter: Toxic Friends.

We aimed to put our world leaders in the spotlight, and urge them to ignore the false solutions and greenwashing which would be put forward by big corporations at COP26. Instead, we wanted to amplify the voices of those already feeling the impact of the climate crisis – who are too often left out of the room where decisions are made.

The Toxic Friends campaign

Toxic Friends exposed the dangerous tangle between the corporate and political worlds. It exposed the hypocrisy of corporations claiming to offer solutions to the climate crisis, when they are in fact a huge part of the problem. It shone a light on the abuse and violence too often faced by land and environmental defenders at the hands of corporations.

Throughout the campaign, conceptualised by our partner agency Catnip, we demanded politicians and global leaders pledge to break off their ties with the world’s biggest polluters.

By putting a spotlight on these relationships, we showed that corporations' very existence within these spaces has to be delegitimised entirely. When politicians “break up” with their toxic friends, those on the frontline of the climate emergency can claim that space and offer real, lasting solutions.
We’ve all experienced a toxic friendship, and friendships don’t get any more toxic than those between polluters and politicians. It’s time to #EndPollutersPower.

How do we spot toxic friendships at the highest levels of power?

1) They’re manipulative

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Big businesses are operating behind a mask of responsibility, spending millions to suggest they are operating in a way that benefits people and the planet, whilst actually using  their influence and power to help shape policy that directly benefits few but their bottom line.

2) They make promises they don’t keep

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Companies, including the financial sector, make impressive-sounding climate commitments, while at the very same time fuelling the destruction of our planet.

3) It’s never their fault

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Many corporations have sought to shift blame for unsustainable global warming onto the individual and consumer, when in fact, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions.

4) You’ve caught them out in a lie

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Fossil fuel companies peddle the lie that fossil gas is a greener alternative, and many other polluters like to promote ‘unproven’ (read: completely unfeasible) solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon capture.

5) They pretend to be someone they’re not

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Toxic polluters love greenwashing – it happens when corporations use marketing spin to appear climate friendly, whilst hiding what they’re really up to: polluting communities and driving the climate crisis.

6) They hurt the people you care about

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Many communities face violence and persecution in response to their efforts to protect their land and our planet from corporate-driven projects.

Toxic friends in numbers

The launch tweet for Toxic Friends in August was our top performing tweet that month, with 180K+ impressions and 2,214 engagements. Our reach was bolstered by a notable amplification from Greta Thunberg, and further support from the likes of Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Will Yeates, Edward Davey, Isabelle Axelsson, Reverend Yearwood and Dr Charlie Gardner.

Throughout the campaign, we reached out to a curated list of influential voices in the climate change conversation for their support in amplifying our messages. We engaged over 160 people from over 15 countries, including Zainab Waheed (Pakistan), Anita Soina (Kenya), Nyombi Morris (Uganda), Samela Awia (Brazil), Isaac Ssentumbwe (Uganda) and Evelyn Acham (Uganda), and many (many) more.

We built up relationships with partner organisations like UK Youth Climate Coalition, Fridays For Future Digital, Fridays For Future MAPA, Parents for Future, and Glasgow Calls Out Polluters and many more. It marked the beginning of meaningful collaborations which will last well beyond COP26.

What did we learn?

Toxic Friends was the first of its kind for Global Witness (and we say this proudly!). We employed tactics that we haven’t used before, including upping our meme game when talking about the failure of our leaders to solve the climate crisis.

We found that a simple narrative that encapsulated all of our top strategic priorities was effective. It allowed us to amplify our existing work and support a more integrated and cohesive message to our audiences. 

We borrowed a handful of tactics from political and community organising.  For example, we spent months building relationships with a vast array of individuals through Twitter and Instagram and building a network of highly influential voices (or a digital army, as some like to call it!).

This allowed us to collaborate on content creation, raise awareness of the campaign, increase social media audience numbers, and most importantly, establish longer-term relationships which will exist past COP26 and shape the future of Global Witness’s campaign work.  

Even though COP26 has come to an end, the fight for climate justice hasn’t.