The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled that HSBC mislead consumers regarding their green credentials in two adverts that appeared on the high-street last year. This is the first time the UK's advertising watchdog has upheld a complaint for 'greenwashing' by an advertiser in the financial industry.
The two adverts were displayed at bus stops in London and Bristol in October 2021 ahead of COP26. They included the following text:
"… HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero" and "… 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 received 45 complaints that HSBC was selectively advertising its green credentials whilst failing to acknowledge its own contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
All non-broadcasting advertising in the UK has to comply with the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code). CAP code rule 3.3 states that marketing materials must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. Rule 11 of the CAP Code specifically relates to environmental claims. Rule 11.1 for example states that the basis of environmental claims must be clear and that unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information.
In June this year, the ASA provided further guidance regarding misleading environmental claims and social responsibility. This emphasised that where general claims could be interpreted as absolute claims, additional information is required to make the meaning of the claim clear.
During the course of the complaint, HSBC provided evidence to substantiate the claims that were made in the ads i.e. that it was providing finance to its clients to transition to net zero, and that it was helping to plant two million trees.
However, the ASA was more focused on what the ads did not say. The ASA found that HSBC was continuing to significantly finance businesses and industries that emitted notable levels of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses. This was considered material information that was likely to affect the consumer's understanding of the adverts' overall message.
Therefore, despite HSBC arguing that the ads did not comment more widely on its green credentials, the ASA found the ads to be misleading as per rules 3.1, 3.3 and 11.1 of the CAP code. The ASA cautioned HSBC that its future marketing communications must be adequately qualified and not omit material information.
There have been a number of ASA rulings relating to greenwashing recently, as discussed in our article "Greenwashing: Is your business doing sustainable advertising correctly?". However, this is the first ASA decision relating to greenwashing in the financial industry emphasising the gravity the ASA places on this issue. Indeed, through this decision, it is evident that green initiatives and advertising are not just a box tick exercise. Brands have to not only be able to back up their claims with evidence, but also assess how their green initiatives fit in their business holistically.
In an interview between Mishcon de Reya and Miles Lockwood (Director of Complaints and Investigations at the ASA), he stated that the two key issues the ASA encountered when reviewing adverts and complaints of greenwashing is the clarity of the environmental claims and the misleading nature of claims through significant omissions.
This latest decision stresses that it is important for companies to consider their green claims carefully when developing marketing materials.
Complexity for financial services and investment
Green advertising, and broader environmental, social and governance (ESG) advertising and marketing, is a particularly complex and delicate area for the global financial services and investment sectors.
As in HSBC’s case, the largest banks, insurers and asset managers are often criticised for their financing of, investment in, and underwriting of fossil fuel-based industries, and so they see sound climate change credentials as a key area of competitive advantage. The advertising and marketing conundrum of exposure to legacy carbon-heavy industries while aspiring to be seen as leaders in the race to decarbonise the most developed economies is not easily balanced, given ever increasing regulatory and stakeholder attention.
The world’s largest pension funds and insurance reserves are also sending signals to the broader financial services community that 'green is good'. In 2022, more than 4,600 institutional investors backed a United Nations-supported set of Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) launched by the late UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in April 2006. The PRI members include the world’s largest asset owners and managers representing an estimated US$ 120 trillion in assets. ESG thinking underpins these Principles.
The assets behind the PRI, a voluntary initiative, are a strong signal to the market, which will encourage a range of banks, insurers, funds and service providers to the investment chain to push their green credentials. A green profile helps companies for reputational reasons, to attract capital and to position as leaders in new, sustainability-aligned growth sectors.
There are also challenges for the investor members of the PRI themselves. Having made a voluntary and high-profile commitment, an increasing number of pension funds are being questioned by their beneficiaries on whether and how they are effectively delivering on the aspiration to be a responsible investor. A growing number of large funds have been challenged legally on climate-related issues and whether their actual investments are properly aligned with the PRI.
Globally, there is a surge in policy-maker and regulatory attention to the validity of the sector’s green and ESG claims.
Finally, the major prudential oversight bodies, including the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision (BCBS), and the International Organization for Securities Commissions (IOSCO), are all focusing on ESG issues bringing further pressure on the sector to ensure actions and communications are aligned.