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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Starmer

Can Man Become Superman? A Challenge For Noel Quinn.

I first met Noel Quinn in the early 90s because he attended a number of training courses I was leading. He’s a great guy. He was genuinely caring and sincere individual who exuded decency and integrity. I’ve no reason to imagine he’s changed. I’d like to imagine that I played a small part in him having achieved his current stellar role as CEO of HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks; but the reality is that I probably made no difference to someone who was already a naturally skilled and effective leader.

One could not dispute that he has already achieved greatness in the business world. But right now Noel is in a unique position to go one step further. He is poised upon an opportunity to be a global hero. He’s one of those rare people who has not only the platform, but (apparently) also the willingness to try and make a difference to the prospects for our planet. He’s doing so through HSBC's climate strategy, which includes unbounded support for the Net Zero initiative (look it up if you’ve not heard of it). It’s brave and it’s bold.

However, I believe he can do more. A lot more. Noel Quinn can change the whole world for the better. But does he recognise this? I’ve written an open letter challenging him to do just that.

Hi Noel,

I wanted to write and congratulate you on the bank’s farsighted climate strategy and your sponsorship of/participation in the Net Zero initiative. Making it such a high-profile priority for HSBC and taking a stand in the business community requires a certain bravado, when there are still those who will pour scorn upon the idea of global warming and climate change. I admire both your personal courage and the integrity behind what you are doing. I have seen cynics dismiss the bank’s involvement as a shrewd political move, or even a publicity stunt. But if you are half the person I remember, I have no doubt whatsoever that you are wholly sincere and committed in your determination to make a difference for good in the world.

Yet it is precisely because of this fact that I have found myself wondering if you have fully explored other ways in which HSBC could/should conceivably impact upon the causes of climate change? In other words, are you actually doing enough?

I am sure you are well aware that in 2006, the United Nations declared:

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” And then four years later, they warned that “a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change”.

I am sure you are equally aware that the new ‘food strategy’ for England, commissioned by the government, lays out in stark detail the damage the current food and farming system wreaks on the environment, as well as our health. “It is the biggest destroyer of nature and a major source of climate warming”, it says.

Most people may read this information and ask how this can be the case? The knowledgeable amongst us will be aware that greenhouse gas emissions, the subject of the Net Zero initiative, are not predominantly caused by animal agriculture. Indeed, only around 14% are attributable to this source, so what’s the problem? For brevity’s sake, here’s a much-simplified answer.

Whilst we may seek to reduce the outputs of harmful poisons that are damaging the atmosphere, we are simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot by massive deforestation and land use change that removes our most powerful natural allies in combatting global warming, trees. We chop them down because it frees up land. The land is used for industrial scale production of crops. The crops are almost entirely used as fodder for the animals that we eat. Their slaughter requires additional industrial processes to process their dead bodies. This in turn creates more greenhouse gases.

In other words, as highlighted by the UN and the UK government, our dietary choices, (even at a time when there are so many alternatives becoming available) are a primary culprit in wreaking havoc upon our environment.

Your whole climate strategy and support for Net Zero is great. The degree of emphasis on it in your Linkedin communications speaks volumes about your level of commitment. HSBC’s support of businesses transitioning is simply awesome. The bank’s involvement may embolden lesser organizations and you personally may inspire other leaders with more limited foresight to change their approach to the problem.

But it’s not enough. It attacks one component of the problem, while something else much larger and damaging is going on that undermines your initiatives at every step. Regrettably, your climate change strategy will not bring about the alteration in global mindset that is needed right now. It doesn’t incorporate an element that brings the problem to the individual’s door, when that's where it should rightly be. It makes it a corporate issue, rather than something we should all feel obligated to be involved in. It ignores the fact that we’re all complicit in screwing up our own world, when something as simple as how we eat could make all the difference.

In fairness, most people don’t seem to know the whole truth about the role of food consumption in global warming. And if they do, they tend to ignore it as an unfortunate inconvenience. So it’s maybe not surprising that no major international corporate entity has as yet come out and declared their willingness to participate in educating the world about these disturbing and unpalatable facts. I guess the arguments for not doing so are many. For banks, the fear of losing clients who ply their trade in the sector looms large. ‘Taking a stand’ runs the apparent risk of being at odds with shareholder interest and profitability. It can be a dangerous thing to do. And the reluctance to be seen to be ‘telling people what to do’ must follow swiftly behind as a disincentive.

Perhaps the fear of being too bold and potentially damaging the business outweighs the fear of what’s really going on in the world? Yet I note that the special resolution on climate change was passed by 99.7% of your shareholders; and Mark Tucker [HSBC's chairman] and the board obviously agree with what you are doing, since you are so committed to Net Zero. This is surely evidence that everyone recognises the magnitude of the issue and its global importance? Everyone is aware that the devastation caused by the climate change crisis must outweigh short term business considerations.

I would hope that what I have written so far would prompt you to ask yourself three things.

1. Could HSBC do more?

The world needs change champions who are prepared to use the platforms their businesses provide (and yours is one of the most significant) to ensure that everyone knows the truth of what is going on in the world. We need to be encouraged to play our own part in dealing with what is rapidly becoming a common, worldwide problem. As a major international business, HSBC could be at the forefront of making a real difference.

2. Is it HSBC's responsibility to do more?

You may remember, many years ago, that I showed you this.

There were once four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done, and Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about it, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody, when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

The public listens when business leaders start to comment on social issues and there’s no vested interest involved; and since banks are the oil that greases the whole of our social system, it gives their leaders an unparalleled platform. Yet what’s written above is precisely the way things are going as far as big business’s role in educating the planet is going. It’s being left to fringe organisations with neither the clout nor the credibility, beyond that which they have with those who already share their perspectives.

This crisis NEEDS a major, important corporate to stand up and be counted. It needs a leader to start using their platform to make a difference, rather than just protect their position and their business interests. It needs someone with the foresight to recognise that if wholesale change doesn’t happen, there’s not going to be any business left. I put it to you that HSBC has already committed to trying to make a difference and has assumed a level of responsibility. Why not assume more responsibility?

3. What more can HSBC do?

The problem has thus far been tackled in a very corporate way. The thinking behind it is “What can the organisation do?” rather than “What can an individual do?”

You have nearly a quarter of a million staff worldwide. Making them aware of what they can do personally to make a difference would be a great starting place. Imagine the ripple effect that could be created! And then there’s your potential to influence your customer base…

I can see why you may question if it is right for any organisation to try and influence the personal lifestyle choices of others. Yet I observe that influencing thinking is (rightly) very much part of HSBC’s raison d’être. Your laudable support of mental health in the workplace and LGBTQ initiatives is ample evidence of that.

And it must be asked how do people become informed anyway? Whose responsibility is it to lead a global education initiative? Adults are way past school days, so should they wait for their governments (who are heavily lobbied by self-interested industry groups) to inform them? Must they wait for friends or colleagues to advise them of the right thing to do? Couldn't it be said to be the responsibility of a caring employer, that has a global view, to be instrumental in appraising their people of what is in their best interests? After all, isn’t that precisely what you’re already doing when you post updates about the bank’s climate strategy initiatives?

The steps you could assume the responsibility for taking would mean promulgating information about changes that the world desperately needs, but would not thank you for speaking of. Dietary choices are a touchy subject. They challenge the status quo and people’s lifelong habits. But isn’t the possibility of helping businesses and individuals transition not just their practices, but also their thinking, so as to allow them to make informed choices NOW, more important than commercial decisions that only serve the moment?

We’ve already arrived at a place where much of what business does, whilst protecting vested interests, will ultimately bring about our own demise in the long term. The ravages of climate change and its causes must be faced up to. It is an issue everybody must own at a personal level. The survival of the planet and the future of every being that calls the Earth home depends upon it.

To ignore all of the things that need to be done to combat climate change is to be part of the problem. You have already taken great strides to try and become part of the solution. But there’s so much more that needs to be done.

So I’m asking you to take another major step Noel.

  • I’m asking you to pursue the pathway you’ve already begun to the next logical level.

  • I’m asking you to fulfil the potential of your platform in being a force for good.

  • I’m asking you to lead HSBC in a pioneering initiative to tackle climate change in all possible ways.

  • I’m asking you to help bring about an end to current animal agriculture practices, and the concomitants, that are wrecking our planet.

  • I’m asking you to lead HSBC in a pioneering initiative to promote global dietary change.

  • I’m asking you to do more because you’re one of the people who I know who is in a position where they can make a real difference.

In short, I’m asking you to be a real hero, for the whole world.

I remember you Noel. And I know you can do it.

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