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Big Banks: The greenwash machine is alive and well. We need fintech

As the climate continues to hurtle off a cliff, banks are going in the wrong direction. A ‘fintervention’ is urgently required, writes Hannah Duncan.

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Back in 2018, I wrote my master's dissertation on greenwashing in investment management. It didn’t start out like that.

The research was meant to be about marketing sustainable finance. But what I uncovered was so damning, shocking, and devastating that it wasn’t just the paper that changed. My whole life turned upside-down.

For the first time, I saw the truth. Banks greenwash. A lot. I was still working in investment management then.

I worked at a large European bank that has poured more than $150bn into financing fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement.

Like thousands of others, I was unwittingly part of the greenwash machine. I genuinely believed that my employer was the most sustainable bank in the world. My speciality was writing award pitches. 

The bank even won an accolade of environmental finance awards while I was there. 

I’d be typing late into the evening – just me and the office mice – squeezing a win out of every initiative. I even made T-shirts. “WHAT'S YOUR IMPACT?” was blazoned across them. And it wasn’t ironic. I jumped out of a plane representing the bank wearing that shirt. 

I am still trying to come to terms with it. I feel like I was a pawn in some twisted game. Now I am out of investment banking altogether. I scrawl article after article about greenwashing. But writing only gets you so far. The world needs action. 


The OECD has made it painfully clear that we can reach our climate goals if we invest $6.9trn each year into low-carbon infrastructure. Our towns do not need to flood. Our forests do not need to burn.

Yet, the way banks think is unbearably short-term. They love quick and dirty profit. For them, oil is like a bad boyfriend they just can’t leave. 

Since the Paris Agreement, 60 banks have handed over $5.469trn for fossil fuel companies to expand. If they had just said no – or at least attached some terms - the planet would be in a drastically better position. 

Maybe 33 million Pakistanis wouldn’t have been flooded out of their homes. Maybe 13 million West Africans wouldn’t be suffering severe hunger from droughts. Over the past year, sixteen banks, including my old employer have increased financing. 

We have more than enough money to do the right thing. $40trn is invested in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds. That’s four times what’s needed. But the money is not being invested well. 

10 per cent of ESG funds, for example, contain BP. Imagine that… Fund managers gathered around a table and agreed that BP was a good company to include. Exxon Mobil and Shell too. Unsurprisingly, after years of soaking up our ESG investment, BP has now decided to “dial back” from its carbon commitments. I mean… What did we expect? It’s a petrol company. 

What’s completely crazy is that we have everything we need to save the planet. We know how to make renewable energy; we have the funds to expand… It’s just that the banks won’t hand it over. 

They are too deeply embroiled with fossil fuel companies and maintaining the sad status quo. 

Breaking the cycle

Promisingly, there are services fighting to break this swampy greenwash hellhole. Investment platforms like The Big Exchange (a sister company to The Big Issue), CIRCA5000 and Triodos unapologetically reject short-termism. 

They’re laser-focused on sustainability and making it easier for people to invest in green infrastructure. The Big Exchange, for example, has a button that I love. It’s called “filter for fossil free”, and in one click, not one penny of my money goes to oil companies.  

Perhaps most importantly – to avoid greenwash - they are transparent. Some are powered by another fintech, Tumelo. It’s a platform that uses pass-through voting technology to give ordinary people a say on their own investments. 

Of course, the weird anti-woke lobbies in the USA hate this kind of thing. The big banks hate it too. They’re vehemently protesting the INDEX Act. If they succeed, it would be a major roadblock to people like you and me having a say in our investments. Being able to choose where our money goes should be a right. But it’s becoming a privilege. 

(Sidenote: Did you know that woke means to be “aware of racial and social issues”? … I have a theory that people who describe themselves as “anti-woke” didn’t research the definition). 

Other fintechs approach the problem from a different angle. Recently, I spoke to Mais Callan. 

She’s created a Software-as-a-Service platform that helps institutional investors more easily implement responsible investment and boost sustainability. It’s an incredibly ambitious goal. But if her platform – Impactive – goes mainstream, £2.5tn managed by UK pension funds could (finally) be used to save the planet. 

Green and sustainable fintechs like this are just a drop in the toxic investment ocean. They urgently need support and capital to power-up. 

But frustratingly, many struggle to get funding. I wonder how much of this is because often, they are founded by women. Despite creating 40 per cent of fintech start-ups, women-led start-ups receive just 4 per cent of UK VC funding.

Ripping off the green-tinted glasses

As another Earth Day (my birthday) passes by, we must force ourselves to recognise the mistakes we’ve made. The painful, humiliating, and agonising mistakes. It’s difficult. Really difficult. But we must. 

Greenwash is scary because you truly don’t see it while you’re doing it. I was balls-deep in creating greenwash and I had no idea. My desk couldn’t have been closer to the energy traders. Hundreds of monitors screamed oil prices at me every day. But I was totally oblivious. 

The vast majority of people working in banks like JPMorgan ($434.1bn in fossil fuels since 2016), CITI ($332.9bn) or Wells Fargo ($318.2bn) probably have no idea either.

If you’re someone who creates ESG marketing material for any of the banks that fund fossil fuels (like I was), I’m sorry to say it, but you ARE part of the problem. 

That’s why we need new financial services. New faces. New thinking. 

Time is running out. As the IPCC puts it, there’s “a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”.

We need a financial intervention. A ‘fintervention’.

It’s time to move over.   

The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of AltFi.

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