Seriously, HSBC? Why This Bank’s Relationship with Meat Giant JBS Doesn’t Add Up
We all have to live with the consequences of this bank financing climate chaos, and it's time HSBC took that responsibility seriously.
A couple of weeks ago, Feedback travelled to Birmingham to put a question to HSBC’s board of directors at the bank’s annual general meeting (AGM). We wanted to find out why the bank persists in financing industrial livestock companies despite their outsized contribution to climate change, deforestation and human rights violations.
We found our seats in a large conference hall, where the board of directors sat looking back at us from behind their podiums on the stage. No doubt in a bid to avoid the chaos that ensued following protests in previous years, HSBC’s strategy for managing dissent in 2023 seemed to be to suck all of the energy out of the room. Despite person after person standing up to protest the bank’s financing of climate destruction, each director remained unmoved. Towards the beginning, a group of middle-aged professional types sitting in front of us suddenly got up and burst into song. Unfurling long, hand sewn banners from underneath their dress shirts, they accused HSBC of being arsonists and liars, and criticised them for all of the money they continue to sink into fossil fuels. After the singers were carted out by security, another couple jumped into action, donning head-to-toe cleaning outfits and scrubbing the “filthy” meeting down– did somebody say greenwash? Finally, after a series of speeches by directors, it was time for the Q&A section. This was dominated by concerned shareholders, NGOs, and activists further pressing HSBC to stop bankrolling the climate crisis. Our names were read, one by one, by a booming-big brother voice that appeared to emanate from the heavens. Perhaps it was AI, perhaps it was God. Either way, it succeeded in both making me feel small and watched. I proceeded with my question.
I reminded Noel Quinn, HSBC’s Group Chief Executive that his bank has pledged to reduce the carbon emissions it finances to Net Zero by 2050 or sooner, and to not support businesses directly involved in deforestation. I wanted to know why HSBC is investing in companies whose actions stand in direct contradiction with these commitments.
HSBC’s supposed commitment to Net Zero doesn’t add up, not only because it persists in financing fossil fuel companies, but also due to its funding of the industrial livestock industry, which is a massive global emitter. If growth trends continue, animal agriculture will be using up almost half the world’s 1.5°C emissions budget by 2030– making staying within safe levels of climate change virtually impossible.
One of the companies HSBC provides finance to is Brazilian beef giant JBS, the world’s largest meat producer. In 2021, JBS’ emission footprint alone was larger than the entire country of Spain’s. JBS’ supply chain has been repeatedly accused of links to illegal deforestation. HSBC has been well aware of this for some time. The bank’s own analysts warned in 2020 that JBS: “has no vision, action plan, timeline, technology or solution” for monitoring whether the cattle it buys originate from farms involved in rainforest destruction. Additionally, JBS has also faced multiple allegations of Indigenous land theft and modern day slavery in its supply chains. Despite that, our research has uncovered that HSBC was still holding $3.5 million in JBS shares as of the end of last year.
However, when I asked Noel Quinn why HSBC continues to finance one of the world’s highest-emitting companies, in which it holds millions of dollars’ worth of shares, he simply shrugged, and claimed that he is not familiar with JBS.
I pushed back on his response. Surely, after the extensive media coverage of JBS and its connection with the destruction of the Amazon, which experienced record breaking wildfires in 2022, simply ‘not knowing’ is no longer good enough. Quinn would’ve certainly heard about JBS from his own analysts. My mic was shut off and we were soon on to the next question, but the bank’s skirting of responsibility was clear. Be it indifference or true ignorance at the helm of HSBC, the response its CEO gave me in Birmingham is unacceptable. Not knowing is a privilege that those most impacted by climate change do not have.
We all have to live with the consequences of this bank financing climate chaos, and it’s time HSBC took that responsibility seriously. Other financial institutions have already cut off financial support for JBS, deeming the company too risky: for example, in 2020, Nordea Asset Management pulled out $45 million from the company– over 12 times HSBC’s investments. If Nordea can do it, why can’t HSBC?
It’s clear that HSBC needs to stop funding climate destruction, including its financing for livestock companies like JBS as well as its funding of fossil fuels. The Board of Directors spent a decent amount of time in the AGM paying lip service to various climate positive commitments, but ultimately that rhetoric is worthless without concrete targets for change– especially if we can’t even get a simple, truthful, recognition of their relationships with the companies destroying our planet.
Watch this space for Feedback’s upcoming research on UK banks’ funding for industrial livestock. In the meantime, check out our 2020 report Butchering the Planet.
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