The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has concluded that two sustainability-focused HSBC adverts were misleading customers. In a previous article on the ASA’s investigation into HSBC, we considered the potential ESG danger for greenwashing by omission and considered the preliminary decision that HSBC had been misleading customers about its contribution to global emissions. Matthew Caples now reviews the ASA’s decision here.
HSBC’s adverts highlight climate change initiatives in which it is involved and claim these initiatives will ‘lock in’ significant volumes of carbon and provide significant funding to clients transitioning to net-zero emissions. However, they entirely omit HSBC’s considerable contribution to rising emissions. It is alleged that these adverts would leave consumers with the impression that HSBC was making a positive overall contribution to the environment.
HSBC argued that failing to highlight their continuing significant investment in greenhouse gas-emitting industries did not make their adverts misleading, claiming: “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”.
HSBC ultimately did not consider their adverts, which highlighted “specific short-to-medium term initiatives, capable of quantifiable measurement”, to be commenting on the company’s “green credentials or environmental contribution” in a broader sense.
HSBC also considered their invitation to consumers to find out more about the initiatives by searching “HSBC Sustainability”, to have provided the opportunity for consumers to access more information. This invitation, however, appears to be an invitation to self-education and impliedly suggests that the adverts are informationally incomplete or do not contain sufficient information to leave, what the ASA considers to be, typical consumers with an accurate reflection of HSBC’s green credentials in the broader sense.
HSBC’s position represents an attempt to pass the buck, to the industries which need to decarbonise and to consumers who lack knowledge.
This is an instance of a bank realising the value and importance of public perception on its brand and inherent value. HSBC will not be alone in wanting to capitalise on the value markets place on reaching net zero as a part of, and in meeting, the market’s ESG policies. Unfortunately, it is unsurprising that corporates might inadvertently or otherwise mislead the market when doing so.
At present this is an issue of image and not one which leads to direct loss to corporates. However, this may not always be the case and when direct loss does result, shareholders in the losing corporates will expect redress.
Partner Elaina Bailes comments:
The ASA ruling is significant in that it confirms that corporates can be penalised by the ASA for greenwashing by omission. Whether similar regulation from the FCA will follow remains to be seen but it would certainly be consistent with other reporting obligations on financial institutions to not publish misleading statements.
This should be a reminder to financial institutions and corporates that ESG now pervades all realms of public facing activities. Failure to join the dots between ESG strategies developed at board level, advertising and financial reporting exposes companies to significant risk of customer and shareholder litigation.
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