Banking

Watchdog rules HSBC climate ads misled consumers over bank’s environmental impact

HSBC has been rapped by the UK advertising watchdog over an advertising campaign that promoted the bank’s climate and nature investments without highlighting its significant role in funding fossil fuel infrastructure and other polluting activities.

In a decision published on its website today (19 October), the Advertising Standards Authority said ads for the bank, which ran in the press and on bus-stops in Bristol and London prior to the COP26 Climate Summit last year, “omitted material information” about HSBC’s signifcant investments in polluting businesses.

Over 25% of world’s top companies have no link to external ESG targets

The ASA said it had received 45 complaints about the adverts, which touted the bank’s plans to invest $1tr in helping clients transition to net zero, and plant two million trees that would “lock in” 1.24 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime.

Complainants said the adverts offered an incomplete picture of the bank’s investment activity given HSBC is one of the world’s largest financiers of fossil fuels, with research finding it has provided significant levels of financing to oil and gas companies since 2016.

Campaigners noted the bank continues to finance energy firms with major oil and gas expansion plans, in direct contradiction to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) warning that no new fossil fuel projects should go ahead if the world is to hold global temperatures at less than 1.5C of warming.

In its official response to the ASA’s investigation, HSBC claimed its financing of greenhouse gas emitting infrastructure was “not in conflict” with the aims of the net zero transition and pointed to IEA modelling that suggests the world would still need 20% of current gas production and 25% of current oil production by 2050 even under ambitious decarbonisation scenarios.

It also pointed to its plan to achieve net zero financed emissions by 2050 and its ongoing strategy to engage with portfolio companies to reduce their emissions.

But the ASA ruled that both the wording and the natural imagery of the adverts gave the impression that HSBC was “making and continued to make a positive environmental contribution” and failed to communicate the significant investments in polluting activities and companies that had been detailed in company reports.

“We did not consider consumers would know that [HSBC was continuing to significantly finance polluting businesses and industries], and we therefore considered it was material information that was likely to affect consumers’ understanding of the ads’ overall message, and so should have been made clear in the ads,” the ruling states.

“We concluded that the ads omitted material information and were therefore misleading.”

The ASA said it had told HSBC UK to ensure that future marketing communications featuring environmental claims were adequately qualified and did not omit material information about its on-going contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Reaction

One law firm pointed out that this is one of the first greenwashing decisions from the ASA in the financial sector marketing as previous decisions have been on consumer products, which are easier to determine. 

“Assessing the overall enivronmental contribution of a massive business like HSBC is more complex and nuanced,” explained Andrew Terry, partner at Harbottle & Lewis. 

“The ASA may be correct on this occasion – they may have felt that the data made it easy to show that HSBC’s green efforts were outweighed by its contribution to greenhouse emissions.”

However, while he said it was “right that businesses in the financial sector should be stopped from misleading customers” he added the ASA “needs to be careful that where the picture is more nuanced it does not gag businesses from talking up genuine successes.”

Meanwhile, campaigners welcomed the ruling, noting that it set a new precedent in the fight against corporate ‘greenwash’.

“This is a significant moment in the fight to prevent banks from greenwashing their image,” said Robbie Gillett from campaign group Adfree Cities, which lodged a complaint against the original ad. “HSBC can no longer ply us with ads pretending they are green while continuing to bankroll climate breakdown in the background.”

Andrew Simms from the campaign group Badvertising, who also submitted a complaint, urged the regulator to move faster to clamp down on misleading ‘green’ claims made in corporate marketing and advertising material.

“While this ruling by the ASA is welcome, it is taken a whole year to reach this conclusion, despite the best efforts of its staff,” he said.

“As long as we have a regulatory system that shuts the barn door so long after the greenwash horse has bolted, the public will continue to face false claims by powerful polluters and their financiers.”

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A spokesperson from HSBC said: “The financial sector has a responsibility to communicate its role in the low carbon transition to raise public awareness and engage its customers, so we will consider how best to do this as we deliver our ambitious net zero commitments.” 

Adfree Cities said it had filed complaints against similar adverts by Barclays and Standard Chartered that appeared on Facebook in 2022. 

Tony Burdon, CEO at Make My Money Matter, said he hoped the ruling would help ensure “leading high street banks like HSBC, Barclays, Santander, Natwest and Lloyds, back their adverts with action and permanently commit to ending financing for new fossil fuel expansion.”

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