Two women walk past a bus stop as screen displaying the complained of HSBC ad.

We won against HSBC’s greenwash ads, but what now?

In October 2022, we celebrated a major win against greenwash advertising by HSBC bank when our complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was upheld. 

In a landmark ruling, the ASA agreed with Adfree Cities and 44 other complainants that the ads were misleading for consumers – a world first regarding environmental claims made by banks. 

We argued that the ads, which touted HSBC’s green financing and tree planting whilst omitting their substantial funding of fossil fuels, were misleading. 

Why? Far from championing environmental protection, HSBC is Europe’s second largest funder of fossil fuels having funnelled more than £115 billion into the industry since 2016. 

So what happens next? We can expect a few developments from the ASA over the next few months.

We told HSBC UK Bank plc to ensure that future marketing communications featuring environmental claims were adequately qualified and did not omit material information about its contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

ASA ruling on HSBC, October 2022

Sparking conversation

Already the ASA ruling has generated lots of interest and media discussion both in the media and within the ad industry. 

The ruling was reported in the FT, Bloomberg, WSJ, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, the BBC, the Drum and more and has filtered down to more niche legal, finance and compliance trade publications. 

Media interest is important. It helps us pile pressure on HSBC, especially following the high profile departure of Stuart Kirk, the bank’s head of responsible investment, over a presentation he gave entitled, “Why investors need not worry about climate risk”, and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism finding that HSBC’s much-trumpeted sustainable finance and climate bonds involve significant financial support to fossil fuel companies. Even their green investments aren’t green!

Undoubtedly, other banks that finance fossil fuels are now thinking a lot more carefully about the messaging they put out, and industry experts are issuing new legal advice to help other companies avoid being stung like HSBC.

A screenshot of the BBC article covering the HSBC ASA decision.
A screenshot of the Guardian article covering the HSBC ASA decision.

Updating the guidance

What’s encouraging about the HSBC decision is that the rules against such ads already existed. Our complaint just helped prompt the ASA to enforce them in this case.

We now expect to see updates to the ASA’s guidance around ‘green’ claims made by banks and other financial institutions. This may take some time to filter through, but we are happy that change is coming. 

We understand that the ASA is now planning to write to UK Finance, a finance industry body, regarding the ruling to make sure it is known and understood.

The ASA is also planning to conduct regular sweeps of bank advertising in the future to check for compliance with the new regulations.

In their ruling on the HSBC complaint, the ASA said that any future adverts from banks presenting green claims must not fail to mention the bank’s financing of fossil fuels. 

This ruling will have consequences for other banks running similar ad campaigns, such as Barclays and Standard Chartered. More robust regulation will make these banks wary of releasing any new adverts heralding their supposedly environmentally friendly activities. 

Adfree Cities has called on the ASA to send a formal notice to Barclays and Standard Chartered banks regarding their ‘sustainability’ adverts on social media in 2022, which omitted their huge financing of fossil fuels.

If you’re interested in Adfree Cities and the work we do, don’t hesitate to contact us, and join our mailing list for the latest updates and actions.

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