Environment

Fake billboards target HSBC over ‘climate colonialism’

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

In 2018 HSBC committed to ending funding for new coal projects outside of Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, but the policy did not apply to schemes already backed by the bank.

In 2018 HSBC committed to ending funding for new coal projects outside of Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, but the policy did not apply to schemes already backed by the bank. Image: Brandalism

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.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back
Rewilding

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'
beavers
Environment

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent
Environment

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know