HSBC Adverts Banned for Greenwashing

Author: Samuel Beckingham
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
3 minutes read

Greenwashing is where companies try to advertise a product or service as good for the environment when this is either not the case or is misleading in some way. It’s not a new practice, and companies have been taken to court on this matter for years, including Shell, Coca-Cola and IKEA. Now HSBC has been added to the mix and marks the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) first action against a bank in terms of greenwashing.

HSBC’s adverts were on display in the weeks leading up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow last year. They featured commitments to plant trees and reduce emissions to help HSBC’s customers achieve net zero targets. After complaints, the ASA ruled that the adverts were misleading.

Key information was missing from these ads, as HSBC invests in fossil fuels and has a direct impact on climate change. The ASA stated that anyone seeing these adverts wouldn’t properly understand HSBC’s role in contributing to the problem. Even though they stated the bank’s investment of $1 trillion in climate-friendly initiatives, they were deemed to be misleading.

HSBC has been putting significant investment into businesses and industries that emit notable levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The ASA concluded that people wouldn’t know about these environmentally harmful investments, which meant they were practising greenwashing.

According to HSBC’s national report, its financial investments accounted for 65.3 million tonnes of CO₂ a year. The ASA noted that this was only in relation to oil and gas, but the figure would be much higher if other carbon-intensive industries were included in this figure. Banks have a crucial role to play with their investments if we are ever to reach our net zero goal.

After the adverts were banned, the ASA said that any future environmental adverts from HSBC should not omit key information about its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The public should not be subject to greenwashing as this is an easy way to spread misinformation and hide dirty practices.

The ban has been praised by campaign groups who welcomed the ruling as it set a precedent for banks to not greenwash their image. It’s been too easy for banks to hide their relationship with the fossil fuel industry through misleading adverts, and now it will be harder as the ASA has started to crack down on banks and businesses alike.

ShareAction, an ESG charity, said that 24 big banks, which were part of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, had provided £29.1 billion in investment to new oil and gas projects. This is an investment that should be disappearing altogether if we are to deal with the climate crisis.

Famous cases against greenwashing include Coca-Cola falsely claiming it is sustainable and eco-friendly, despite being the largest plastic polluter in the world, Starbucks for creating a “strawless lid” containing even more plastic than the usual lid, and Volkswagen for advertising “low-emission” vehicles that were emitting up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than legally permitted.