British bank HSBC is the latest advertiser to have its ads spiked for “misleading” customers over green initiatives.
The brand has been warned by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after running a series of posters under the tagline “Climate Change Doesn’t Do Borders.”
Following 45 complaints from the public and activist network Adfree Cities, the regulator said the bank’s promotional claims were at odds with its continued investments in oil, gas and other industries that emitted “notable levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”
HSBC joins Unilever and Coca-Cola’s Innocent Drinks in being accused of using ads to greenwash—a practice whereby marketers exaggerate their climate credentials in order to improve their reputation and sell products.
The latest ASA ruling is the first one to target a financial institution since the regulator tightened its guidelines around greenwashing in 2021, and could have wide implications for financial sector marketing in the U.K.
A complex case
The two posters in question, now banned by the ASA, were part of a wider push from Wunderman Thompson ahead of the COP26 2021 climate summit in Glasgow. The posters showcased the bank’s $1 trillion financing and investment initiative to help clients transition to net zero emissions while also highlighting the planting of 2 million trees in the U.K. to offset emissions.
The ASA argued the public would interpret these messages to mean that HSBC was “making, and intended to make, a positive environmental contribution as a company.” It said the use of imagery from the natural world used in the creative—including images of waves crashing on a beach—contributed to that impression.
The ASA pointed to the bank’s own annual report for 2021, which indicated that it intended to invest between $750 billion and $1 trillion in helping its clients transition to net zero emissions. However, it also reported that current emissions related to the customers it financially backed stood at the equivalent of around 65.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for oil and gas alone.
This figure didn’t include investment in other carbon-intensive industries such as power and utilities, construction, transport and coal mining. In its own literature, HSBC said it would continue funding thermal coal mining and power production to some degree through to 2040.
In its defense, the business said the financing of greenhouse gas-emitting industries was required during the transition to net zero, thereby its continued support of those industries was not in conflict with the aims of a transition to net zero.
Despite this, the watchdog upheld the complaints on the basis that based on the poster copy and imagery, intended audiences would not expect that HSBC to also be simultaneously involved in the financing of businesses that make significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, now and in the future.
The ASA warned the brand not to use the ads in their current form again, and to ensure future environmental claims were adequately qualified and did not omit material information about its contribution to emissions.
A HSBC UK spokesperson told Adweek: “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.”
Adweek understands sustainability is currently not a theme in its ongoing “Borders” campaign.
HSBC still ranks among the 10 biggest financiers of fossil fuels in the world, according to the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network. Its data showed the financial giant provided more than $87 billion to some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies since the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.
This is just the latest example of regulators around the globe, including the ASA and the FTC, attempting to crack down on greenwashing.
Earlier this year, the World Federation of Advertisers issued a stark warning to brands that purport to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes without making any notable sustainability efforts, issuing landmark guidance of its own.
In recent weeks, the new term “green-hushing” has made its way into discussions around corporate sustainability in reference to the rise of less public-facing communication of sustainability targets from big brands for fear of scrutiny, making progress harder to assess.
South Pole, a consulting firm focused on helping businesses with their sustainability goals, recently surveyed 1,200 companies and found one in four had not publicized their science-based net zero emissions targets.