The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) is a British multinational universal bank that prioritises becoming “the preferred international financial partner for our clients”. Speaking from experience, HSBC is unquestionably one of the top choices for many international students studying abroad as its multiple locations make opening a bank account far easier. In other words, you could start your bank account in your home country before coming to university!
HSBC’s sustainability and climate strategy are undoubtedly ambitious, especially with the aim of achieving net-zero by 2030 and 2050 through methods including sustainable initiatives and programmes, donations, and waste reduction. However, with HSBC being Europe’s second-largest investor in fossil fuels, I argue that the bank is simply greenwashing its actions and, thus, have no genuine commitment to sustainability. While the bank has finally agreed to phase down its fossil fuel financing in March 2022, such a decision only took place due to the demands of HSBC’s shareholders. All in all, I am incredibly disappointed in HSBC and wish that I had known about its poor commitment to sustainability before deciding on my preferred student bank account.
HSBC is one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations, focusing on global banking, wealth and personal banking, and commercial banking. The bank has branches in over 64 countries and territories across Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Oceania and Africa. As of July 2022, HDBC has four key strategic pillars to support its ambition to become “the preferred international financial partner” for its clients: (1) Focus on our strengths (2) Digitise at scale (3) Energise for growth (4) Transition to net zero. This review will focus on their fourth strategic pillar to fully assess the sustainability of HSBC.
Before diving straight into its fourth strategic pillar in the next section, I believe its second strategy of digitalising its banking experience also contributes to becoming more sustainable. Recent research by Mobiquity reveals that embracing digital solutions allows banks to not only improve their operational efficiency and consumer convenience but also support environmental sustainability. For instance, less paper will be used as bank statements will be produced electronically. While HSBC is beginning to digitalise its entire process, a new programme to phase out single-use PBV plastic on their physical cards by 2026 began in 2021, which they argue will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 161 tonnes a year and save 73 tonnes of plastic per year. New rPVC cards will be made of 85% recycled plastic. While HSBC does not disclose what the remaining 15% is made of, I still highly commend HSBC’s efforts to reduce its use of plastic and digitalising operations.
Overall, I believe that HSBC’s business strategies are well-thought-out, especially with two out of four directly contributing to improving its sustainability as a bank. However, by exploring the corporation’s net-zero plan and its highly questionable relationship with the fossil fuel industry, it will become apparent that HSBC has become incredibly skilled in greenwashing its actions and agenda. Nevertheless, I believe a rating of 1.5 planets for this section of HSBC’s strategies seems justifiable.
One of the biggest aims as part of HSBC’s fourth strategy pillar is “to achieve net-zero in our operations and supply chain by 2030 or sooner. HSBC is also committed to reducing its portfolio of clients to net zero by 2050. Such aims align with the company’s value to ‘take responsibility seriously’, especially as one of the world’s largest corporations. Quite impressively, HSBC’s main company website has a whole section dedicated to its so-called ‘climate strategy’, which outlines how it aims to achieve its net-zero transition.
Firstly, HSBC aims to publish its Climate Transition Plan by 2030, which would fully outline how its climate strategy will deliver its 2030 and 2050 net-zero targets. Secondly, its 10-goal Reduce programme aims to lessen its operation’s use of energy, paper, and waste, which would ultimately generate less waste. Thirdly, it seeks to provide $750 billion to $1 trillion in sustainable financing for its customer’s transition to lower carbon and $100 million to support climate solutions and innovations between 2020 to 2025, including investing in renewable energy and nature-based solutions.
While HSBC’s ‘climate strategy’ may sound promising, I find it incredibly difficult to trust their word, especially given their historical relationship with the fossil fuel industry. For instance, RAN research found that HSBC financed about $19 billion for fossil fuels between January and September 2020, and has provided over $105.53 billion since the Paris Agreement (2016-2020) – an exceptionally disappointing amount. What I found even more ironic is that HSBC has financed at least four fossil fuel companies just four months after its net-zero announcements, so much for ‘taking responsibility seriously’. It is also important to point out how HSBC’s investment in fossil fuels is far higher than its promised climate solutions investment of $100 million. It was only after the widespread feelings of discontent by its shareholders that it finally pledged to phase out its support for the fossil fuel industry. While this may be a promising sign of real commitment by HSBC, I’ve already lost trust and confidence in the bank. Therefore, I believe 0 planets is the only justifiable score for the how it’s made section.
While HSBC hasn’t been the most transparent with its climate strategies and dirty funding, the same cannot be said for the data on the diversity of employees in the bank. The bank has dedicated an entire page illustrating yearly data (‘improvements’) on the representation of ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities on their company website – such a level of transparency is praiseworthy. Despite this, the statistics presented are simply not good enough (especially for a multinational bank), as seen with only 31.7% of women in senior leadership roles and less than 13% of people from an ethnic minority background employed.
HSBC also publishes a yearly Modern Slavery Act to ensure that modern slavery does not occur in its operations or supply chains. In reality, however, the company holds more than £2 million in shares in a Chinese company linked to human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, directly contradicting itself with its ‘modern slavery act’. Similarly, it is also worth remembering that HSBC is historically known for its predatory lending and “abusive mortgage practices” during the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Thus, HSBC’s stance on ethical and social issues must be significantly improved.
Concerning individual employees, it is also worth noting the case of HSBC Global Asset Management’s previous head of responsible investing, Stuart Kirk, who accused central bankers and other officials of exaggerating the risk of climate change at the 2022 Financial Times’s Moral Money Summit. In his words, “there’s always some nut job telling me about the end of the world”. While Kirk was swiftly suspended for his comment, I can’t help but wonder how many like-minded HSBC employees exist. Although the Group Chief Executive was quick to emphasise that Kirk’s comments “did not reflect the views of senior leadership in HSBC or HSBC asset management”, the bank’s lack of commitment to sustainability and continuous financing for fossil fuels clearly illustrates otherwise. With HSBC’s lack of diversity, ethically concerning investments, and choice of senior management, I believe this section of the review deserves 0 planets.