HSBC Caught Greenwashing
The ASA has today upheld multiple complaints against HSBC for their adverts which highlighted the bank’s climate-focused actions as being misleading, due to their omission of important information relating to their continued financing activities for emissions-intensive industries and businesses.
Two ads were seen on bus stops in Bristol and London in the run up to the COP26 climate conference which promoted HSBC’s initiatives to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero, and to help plant 2 million trees which will lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime.
The ASA received 45 complaints, including from Adfree Cities, who challenged whether the ads were misleading because they omitted significant information about HSBC’s contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
HSBC claimed that their failure to highlight their continuing significant investment in greenhouse gas-emitting industries did not make their adverts misleading, claiming: “the financing of greenhouse gas-emitting industries was required during the transition to net zero, and so their continued financing of those industries was not in conflict with the aims of a transition to net zero”.
They believed that the ads highlighted two tangible and specific short to medium term initiatives, capable of quantifiable measurement and therefore did not comment, in a broader sense, on their green credentials or environmental contribution.
The ASA however felt that despite the commitments made by HSBC, the ads would still lead consumers to understand “that HSBC was making, and intended to make, a positive overall environmental contribution as a company,” and was not in fact “simultaneously involved in the financing of businesses which made significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and would continue to do so for many years into the future.” The ASA highlighted that HSBC’s current financed emissions, the emissions related to the customers it financed, are around 65.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for oil and gas alone.
The ASA concluded that the ads omitted material information and were therefore misleading. The ASA told HSBC to ensure that future marketing communications featuring environmental claims are adequately qualified and do not omit material information about their contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
The ruling is significant as it confirms that corporates can be penalised by the ASA for greenwashing by omission and should serve as a reminder to all brands and agencies that ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) remains at the top of the ASA’s agenda.