Big banks’ greenwashing goes unregulated

The UK advertising regulator has refused to investigate mega polluters Barclays and Standard Chartered Bank over greenwash ads

Recent advertising campaigns by Barclays and Standard Chartered Bank feature their ‘green’ initiatives and (surprise surprise) fail to mention their massive financing of fossil fuels, deforestation and plastics. The ads have drawn multiple complaints to the UK advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) by Adfree Cities, Fossil Free London and others – however, the ASA has refused to investigate the ads, claiming that it is already investigating one bank (HSBC) over misleading environmental claims and therefore cannot currently investigate others.

“As you may already be aware, we are currently formally investigating a different advertiser for similar issues to the ones that you have highlighted in your complaint regarding green claims in banking ads. This will lead to an ASA Council ruling and will set a precedent for this issue across the sector. As such we will not be taking your complaint further”

ASA

HSBC jumped on the bandwagon during the COP26 climate conference in October 2021 to push out a nationwide ad campaign promoting its ‘sustainability’, including a TV ad featuring comedian Richard Ayoade. After multiple complaints, the ASA agreed to investigate the ad campaign (made by serial greenwasher ad agency Wunderman Thompson).

Nine months later, the ASA still has not taken action, and is now also using the HSBC case to refuse to investigate similar greenwashing adverts by major fossil financiers Barclays and Standard Chartered.

Image credit: Brandalism

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter that a couple of ads aren’t being looked into? Well, failing any legislation to ban fossil fuel advertising (for now), regulation to prevent social and environmental harms caused by greenwashing is all we’ve got. Effective and timely regulation is direly needed.

Following the playbook of big tobacco, big polluters and their financial backers are spending millions on glossy advertising to frame themselves as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and even part of the solution to climate breakdown. Of course it’s convincing – even when we think we’re wise to it, advertising uses leading psychology and neuroscience to hack into our psyche – it’s not called ‘persuasion architecture’ for nothing. HSBC and Barclays’ greenwashing ads mean the banks continue to be accepted by society and supported by investors, preventing any meaningful change in their financial activities. Under the cover of adverts touting net zero pledges, minuscule tree-planting schemes and bogus future technologies, they can blithely continue supporting fossil fuel companies to the tune of billions per year; keeping us locked into a high-carbon economy and delaying urgently-needed action for a just transition away from fossil fuels.

To quote the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres:

“Above all, we must hasten the transition to renewable energies. To do this, investments and subsidies must be shifted from fossil fuels to renewable energies, without further delay.”

Adverts vs reality

Barclays

Barclays’ ads claim the bank is “helping to transition to the low carbon economy”. But this year’s Banking on Climate Chaos report again names Barclays as the top financial backer of fossil fuels in Europe. Barclays not only comes first in Europe but is the 7th largest funder of fossil fuels in the world, with $166.7 billion provided to fossil fuel companies between 2016 to 2021. This amount is far greater than the “£100bn of green financing by 2030” the bank promises in its ad, and responsible for large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions that have already pushed the climate to the brink of collapse. We’ve dug up all the dirt on Barclays and how their advertising masks their true impact on the climate, nature and human rights in our full complaint, which was rejected by the ASA in June.

Read Adfree Cities’ full complaint over Barclays’ greenwashing ads.

Standard Chartered Bank

Standard Chartered’s ads, with the tagline “Here for Good” and “we believe progress doesn’t have to cost the planet“, also state that “to keep moving forward, we need to leave carbon behind.” But are they leaving carbon behind?

Standard Chartered is UK’s third most polluting bank and has provided $39.6 billion in fossil fuel finance since the Paris Agreement (from 2016-2021). The bank is Europe’s ninth biggest financier of oil and gas expansion, has no commitment to phase-out coal exposure by any date, and funds Saudi Armaco – the energy firm responsible for the most CO2e emissions of any single company in the world. The bank’s current policies make its own ‘net zero by 2050’ target impossible to reach. Read the full contrast between SCB’s contribution to climate breakdown and their greenwashing ads, in our full complaint, which the ASA refused to investigate in May.

Read Adfree Cities’ full complaint over Standard Chartered Bank’s greenwashing ads.

Above: Standard Chartered Bank “Here for Good” advert, 2022

What can I do to take action on greenwash ads?

You can… make a complaint to the ASA: https://www.asa.org.uk/make-a-complaint.html

This might sound strange, given everything we’ve just mentioned. Making a complaint to the ASA does put the pressure on the regulator to recognise the harms caused by and public concern around greenwash advertising – and any high carbon advertising in a climate crisis. And if the complaints process is found to be inadequate, as in these cases where the regulator cannot fulfil its duty to prevent harm caused by climate-damaging ad content, there is a case for structural reform.

You could consider writing to your MP to ask for tightened regulation around advertising content. Get in touch with us at hello@adfreecities.org.uk – we are happy to help with advice or any other support.

Sign up to our mailing list for calls to action on greenwash, get involved with Adfree Cities and Fossil Free London, and check out the Badvertising campaign who are campaigning to stop advertising fuelling the climate emergency.

Above: the ASA’s rules on tobacco advertising – i.e. what were aiming for with a ban on all fossil fuel advertising.

Image credit: Brandalism

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