Two posters for HSBC advertising the bank’s green initiatives have been banned for omitting information about its own contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
The posters, seen on bus stops in Bristol and London in October 2021, showed images of waves crashing on a shore and tree growth rings with the slogan: “Climate change doesn’t do borders.”
They went on to state that HSBC was aiming to provide up to one trillion US dollars (£880 billion) in financing and investment globally to help its clients transition to net zero, and helping to plant two million trees in the UK to lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime.
They attracted 45 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), including that they were misleading because they omitted significant information about HSBC’s contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
HSBC UK said 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.
As a business, HSBC said it aimed for a 34% reduction in absolute oil and gas financed emissions and a 75% reduction in financed emissions intensity for the power and utilities sector by 2030.
They planned to phase out their financing of thermal coal by 2030 in the European Union and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and by 2040 in the rest of the world.
The ASA said the basis of environmental claims must be clear and that unqualified claims could mislead if they omitted significant information.
It noted that the bank’s 2021 annual report indicated that it intended to invest between 750 billion US dollars (£660 million) and one trillion US dollars in helping its clients transitioning to net zero.
However, it also indicated that its current financed emissions – emissions related to the customers it financed – stood at the equivalent of about 65.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for oil and gas alone, based on the information available at the time the report had been prepared.
The ASA said: “We understood that figure was likely to be much higher once other carbon-intensive industries such as power and utilities, construction, transport, and coal mining had been analysed and included.
“We also understood from the annual report that HSBC intended to continue funding thermal coal mining and power production – a type of fuel that emitted high levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses – to some degree until 2040 (or 2030 in the OECD).”
The ASA found that “despite the initiatives highlighted in the ads, HSBC was continuing to significantly finance investments in businesses and industries that emitted notable levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
“We did not consider consumers would know that was the case and we therefore considered it was material information that was likely to affect consumers’ understanding of the ads’ overall message, and so should have been made clear in the ads.
“We concluded that the ads omitted material information and were therefore misleading.”
ASA ruled that the ads must not appear again, adding: “We told HSBC UK 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.”
A HSBC UK spokeswoman said: “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.”
Robbie Gillett, from campaign group Adfree Cities, who led the complaint, said: “This is a significant moment in the fight to prevent banks from greenwashing their image.
“HSBC can no longer ply us with ads pretending they are green while continuing to bankroll climate breakdown in the background.”