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HSBC, greenwashing and the Advertising Standards Authority

Author: Dr. Angelika Hellweger  27 October 2022
2 min read

Angelika Hellweger of Rahman Ravelli considers an ASA ruling regarding corporate environmental claims.

In 2021, the UK’s advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), tightened its guidelines relating to greenwashing

It has now issued its first ruling to target a financial institution, as part of its efforts to crack down on misleading environmental claims. While the ruling is against HSBC, it may have wider implications for financial sector marketing in the UK.

HSBC was ordered to not display again the adverts that it had placed in bus stops in London and Bristol in October 2021 in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference. The adverts omitted significant information about HSBC’s involvement in fossil fuel projects and its links to deforestation.

The first HSBC poster featured the strapline: “Climate change doesn’t do borders. Neither do rising sea levels. That’s why HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1tn in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero.’’

The second read: “Climate change doesn’t do borders. So in the UK, we’re helping to plant 2 million trees, which will lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime.’’

The ASA Ruling

The ASA stated that consumers might be led to understand “that HSBC was making, and intended to make, a positive overall environmental contribution as a company’’. It added that consumers would not expect that HSBC “would also be 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.”

ASA pointed out that HSBC’s financed emissions stand at over 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for oil and gas alone, and that the bank intended to continue to fund thermal coal mining to some degree for several years 

Issues for Corporates

The ruling shows that the ASA scrutinised HSBC’s far-reaching business interests in depth in order to assess its overall environmental contribution.  It should also be noted that complaints have also been filed regarding Barclays and Standard Chartered, who have been accused of using similar adverts on Facebook in 2022

Recent months have seen the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority begin investigations into the eco-friendly and sustainability claims of the fashion brands Boohoo, George at Asda and Asos. There have also been investigations conducted in other countries into firms such as Deutsche Bank, H&M, Nørrona and Decathlon. Companies that make inaccurate or misleading statements in adverts, financial statements or on a website can expect such claims to be investigated.

Companies - and in particular, board members - are well advised to thoroughly check any statement relating to sustainability, net-zero or eco-consciousness matters. The use of such terms in communications with the public needs to be supported by sufficient evidence to back up the green credentials that are being claimed

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Dr. Angelika Hellweger

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Angelika is a specialist in international, high-level economic crime investigations and large-scale commercial disputes. She has widely-recognised expertise in representing corporates and conglomerates in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and United States.

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