Take action against HSBC’s greenwash-by-omission “Sustainability” ads

Unsurprisingly, each advert fails to mention HSBC’s ongoing financial support to fossil fuel companies

As the issue of corporate greenwashing continues to hit headlines in the run up to November’s climate summit, COP26, Adfree Cities is launching a complaint to the ASA against a series of misleading out-of-home greenwash advertisements for HSBC. Follow the instructions below this blog to submit your own complaint using our template.

This isn’t the first time HSBC’s ads have been called out as greenwash. An apparent response to Brexit, HSBC’s “We are not an island” campaign by ad agency Wunderman Thompson was ridiculed for its cosy focus on local UK communities – while the bank payrolls projects that cause the destruction of communities around the world. This summer, HSBC adverts in Australia for a Great Barrier Reef protection scheme were called out as “blatant greenwash” and reported to Ad Standards by 17-year old snorkel instructor Ava Shearer. The savvy teen points out that while HSBC is financing coal, the number one contributor to climate breakdown, the bank cannot claim to be protecting the struggling reef.

Now, a series of advertisements that misrepresent HSBC as a ‘sustainable’ bank have prompted Adfree Cities to launch an official complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ads, seen at bus stops in Bristol and London in October 2021, display imagery of wind turbines and tree rings, with claims about planting trees and reaching ‘net zero’, and the tagline “Search HSBC Sustainability”.

Unsurprisingly, each advert fails to mention HSBC’s ongoing financial support to fossil fuel companies, in a textbook case of greenwash “by omission”. The ads create a misleading impression of a bank that is environmentally responsible, while missing out crucial information that would lead passers-by to come to a very different conclusion.

Advert B: Seen in Bristol on 13th October 2021 at 4pm.

Some of the details that aren’t shown include the fact that HSBC is the 13th most polluting bank in the world, the 2nd worst in the UK – responsible for pouring more than $110 billion into fossil fuel companies from 2016-2020. That’s $23.5 billion to the fossil fuel industry in 2020 alone, including to several of the world’s biggest polluters (Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum and others) and many that are expanding their operations. 

HSBC’s contribution to the climate crisis doesn’t stop there. The bank finances deforestation and is the 6th largest global lender to the plastic supply chain, facilitating a mountain of plastic pollution responsible for catastrophic damage to oceans and global ecosystems, including through the release of further greenhouse gas emissions. Our full complaint details the many ways in which HSBC’s ‘Sustainability’ ads miss the bigger picture.

The ASA recently said they “will be shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters in the years to come” in the context of concerns over the devastating impacts of anthropogenic-induced climate change and the need for an immediate move away from fossil fuels.

We know the world needs to move away from fossil fuels and the ASA has acknowledged this too. Greenwashing stalls real action on climate change, misleads and confuses citizens as to companies’ real impact on the planet, and creates a view of polluting companies as socially and environmentally responsible – and even part of the solution to climate breakdown. Despite its greenwashing adverts, the bottom line is that HSBC is not part of the solution while it continues to finance fossil fuels – it remains a massive part of the problem.

HSBC’S advertisements read:

Advert A – “Climate change doesn’t do borders. And neither do rising sea levels. That’s why HSBC is aiming to provide $1 trillion in finance and investment to help our clients transition to net zero.

Advert B – “Climate change doesn’t do borders. So in the UK, we’re helping to plant 2 million trees which will lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime.

Advert C – “(Climate) change comes from within. That’s why our operations will be net zero globally by 2030.”

Template complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority 

Feel free to amend and personalise your complaint below. There is a word count limit of 5000 characters for the ASA complaint form.

You can attach our full complaint – a link to the pdf is here: http://adfreecities.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/HSBC-ASA-complaint_Oct2021_full.pdf

Photos of HSBC’s outdoor ads, taken in Bristol and London in October 2021, can be found here.

TEMPLATE COMPLAINT BELOW

In summary, the adverts by HSBC are greenwash by omission – focusing on the amount the bank intends to finance in green sectors and tree planting whilst omitting the substantial amounts it currently pours into fossil fuels – the leading cause of climate breakdown.

The advertisements (labelled photos can be seen here: http://adfreecities.org.uk/2021/10/hsbc-accused-of-greenwash-by-omission-with-new-sustainability-ads/ ) are considered to be incompatible with the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing, in particular Section 11 regarding Environmental claims, principles 11.1 and 11.2.

The summarised points are as follows:

Point 1: Advertisements A, B and C omit significant information about HSBC’s massive contribution to global CO2e emissions, in breach of principle 11.1

HSBC is the 13th biggest funder of fossil fuel companies in the world. The bank provided $23.5 billion in finance to fossil firms in 2020 alone, including several of the world’s biggest polluters (Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum and others) and many that are expanding their fossil fuel operations. HSBC plans to continue funding fossil fuels far into 2020s, 2030s and 2040s at least. Its adverts must reflect that.

Point 2: The meaning of terms used in HSBC’s advertisement “That’s why our operations will be net zero globally by 2030” cannot be considered clear to consumers, in breach of principle 11.2. As HSBC is a bank, it could be reasonably construed that its ‘operations’ includes its lending practices. It is not made clear in the advert that ‘operations’ refers to its internal operations only, and does not include its core of activity of loaning money and providing financial services (e.g to large fossil fuel projects).

We are concerned that this UK-wide advertising campaign strongly misrepresents HSBC as a bank, business and brand that has a positive environmental impact. HSBC’s greenwashing advertisements are to the detriment of citizens wishing to bank responsibly, and also to other banks that can make truthful claims regarding their ‘green’ credentials.

As the industry regulator, it falls to the ASA to ensure that HSBC’s and other banks’ advertisements comply with the Non-broadcast Code and Government guidance including the Competition and Markets Authority’s new Green Claims Code.
Advert A. Street advert seen on 13th October 2021 at 4pm 2021. The text reads: “Climate change doesn’t do borders. Neither do rising sea levels. That’s why HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero. Search HSBC Sustainability”
Advert C: Street advert seen on 13th October 2021 at 4pm 2021 in Bristol.
The text reads, “(Climate) change come from within. That’s why our operations will be net zero globally by 2030. Search HSBC Sustainability.”
HSBC bank branch kitted out with greenwash windows in Glasgow, November 2021, during COP26 climate talks

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