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Fake billboards target HSBC over ‘climate colonialism’

Activists Brandalism said their campaign "offers the public a right of reply to HSBC’s PR spin"

Grassroots climate activists have covered more than 250 billboards and bus stops across the UK with spoof HSBC adverts to protest the investment in fossil fuels and alleged “bankrolling human rights abuses”.

The campaigners targeted ads in ten cities including London, Bristol and Glasgow using work from artists in a bid to expose what they call the banking giant’s “harmful impacts on the climate and communities globally”.

HSBC Brandalism
Bristol. Artist: Tona Merriman, photography: Simon Holliday

Other cities in the campaign were Sheffield, Leeds, Oxford, Swansea, Carmarthen and Birmingham.

“Advertising is a key mechanism for big banks to shore up their public image,” said Tona Merriman, from activist group Brandalism. “HSBC likes to position itself as a friendly high street bank through its marketing, but these artworks tell a much darker tale of human rights abuse facilitated by the bank’s activities.”

The campaign was a response to the HSBC “We are not an island” adverts following the bank’s announcement that it aimed to reduce its portfolio’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050 – which campaigners said lacked near-term targets.

HSBC is a driver of deforestation and has invested nearly £67 billion into fossil fuels since the 2016 Paris Agreement was signed, according to campaign group Fund Your Future.

Sheffield. Artist: Matt Bonner

The original ads “offered fake affection [and] a corporate cosiness, saying ‘You are London, You are Bristol’,” Merriman added. “But multinational banks are not communities. And our cities and towns are not HSBC. This campaign offers the public a right of reply to HSBC’s PR spin.”

Earlier this year the bank was accused of funding firms linked to deforestation and impacting indigenous communities, despite a 2017 pledge to review its investment arm, and of previously taking advantage of its own loopholes to bankroll coal projects in developing countries.

Responding to a Greenpeace report in 2017 alleging HSC had financed deforestation initiatives in Indonesia, a spokesperson said in a statement:

In a statement at the time, a spokesman said: “HSBC’s policies prohibit the financing of operations that are illegal, damage high conservation value forest/landscaping or violate the rights of workers and local people.

“HSBC does not knowingly provide financial services which directly support palm oil companies which do not comply with our policy.

“We are not aware of any current instances where customers are alleged to be operating outside our policy and where we have not taken, or are not taking, appropriate action.”

A Friends of the Earth International report published in June claimed banks including HSBC were leaving communities in northern Mozambique “starving and landless” by funnelling money into a gas extraction project, displacing more than 550 families from their homes.

HSBC Brandalism
A London tube train. Artist: Darren Cullen

Rudy Loewe, one of 15 artists whose work was used in Brandalism’s campaign, said: “The image I created reflects the resistance by local communities in Mozambique against climate colonialism. It’s important to remember that as HSBC attempts to brand itself as invested in local communities and ‘heroes’ during this critical moment, in reality they are complicit in the destruction of communities around the world. 

Other artists took aim at the bank’s investment in for-profit prisons in the US and funding for major weapons companies like BAE Systems whose munitions have been used in devastating attacks on Yemen.

Brandalism HSBC
London. Artist: Fokawolf

Anabela Lemos, director of Ja! Mozambique working with communities resisting the gas industry, said: “When banks like HSBC invest in the gas industry in Mozambique, they are just as responsible as the extractive companies like Total, Eni and Exxon for the irreversibly destructive impact on communities. 

“These companies are only able to construct this type of project, and step on thousands of communities, kicking them out of their homes and territories, destroying their livelihoods, their cultures, and their rights, and stealing their future because irresponsible financiers like HSBC make it possible.”

HSBC Brandalism
London. Artist: Tamara Jade

Brandalism’s “fossil bank” campaign will continue through autumn with a series of public information nights outlining the role of big banks in climate change, and its impact on vulnerable communities.

Earlier this year, HSBC said it was “strongly committed to playing our part in the transition to a low carbon economy and is an acknowledged market leader in sustainable finance.”

HSBC recognises the role of the financial sector to address climate change which is why we have progressively tightened policies governing agricultural commodities, forestry, energy and mining.

A spokesperson added the bank “does not finance new coal mines, does not support companies that are materially dependent on coal mining and we have not provided project financing to new coal fired power plants since the release of our revised energy policy in 2018,“ it added.

The Big Issue has approached HSBC for further comment.