School climate activists have sent a legal letter to the $68bn superannuation fund Hesta, asking it to stop using an advert showing a student carrying a cardboard protest sign.
In the letter seen by the Guardian, lawyers for the School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) group said the advert, which ran until at least early 2021, suggested Hesta had the group’s endorsement when it did not.
SS4C members said they were shocked and frustrated that Hesta had used the footage when the superfund was still invested in fossil fuel companies.
“We wanted to do this because we’re sick of companies greenwashing and using our name,” said Charlotte Hall, an 18-year-old SS4C member from Melbourne.
Hesta has rejected the accusation it was trying to link its brand to SS4C but said it had stopped using the imagery in March this year after hearing the concerns of the students.
In the advert, which ran on multiple platforms, viewers were told they should “turn talk into action with Hesta”, with phrases including “invest in clean energy”.
Brief footage shows a young person, filmed from the shoulders down, walking on a cobbled street carrying a handmade cardboard sign with the words “School Strike For Climate” written in black.
Hall, who has met with Hesta representatives, said the cardboard sign and the written phrase had come straight from the SS4C grassroots movement.
“It was how we all started and it was clear for us that this was who we are and it felt like our branding and our story. We don’t want to be a marketing tool for big companies,” she said.
Since meeting the company, she said she remained frustrated by Hesta’s continued investments in fossil fuels and still wanted the fund to divest.
Millie Horsburgh, 16, from Melbourne, said she felt Hesta had used SS4C’s reputation “to cover up its investments in fossil fuels”.
In an earlier letter to Hesta seen by the Guardian from October 2021, SS4C raised concerns about images of school strikers being used in Hesta’s advertising “to attract new members” and those concerns were followed up in a meeting the following month.
According to Rachel Deans, a superannuation fund campaigner at Market Forces, a climate campaign group focused on the investments of financial institutions, Hesta has about $2bn invested in fossil fuel companies.
Analysis of Hesta’s public disclosures showed the fund had $190m invested in gas company Santos, $228m in another gas firm Woodside, as well as about $2m invested in Adani – an India-based conglomerate behind the controversial Carmichael coalmine and rail project in Queensland.
Deans said Market Forces was organising a “divestment day” on 17 June when it expected at least 100 Hesta members to leave the fund in protest over its fossil fuel investments.
Deans said the advertisements “makes it seem that Hesta is more clean and green than it actually is”.
The new legal letter was sent via email to Hesta’s chief executive, Debby Blakey, on Thursday morning.
The letter points to guidance from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, saying advertisers should not “falsely represent” that it has endorsement or approval that it doesn’t have.
According to Hesta’s website, climate change is “one of the most significant threats to our economies, societies and environment” and the fund wants to “establish ourselves as an industry leader in climate action”.
In a statement, Hesta said the company had used “a generic, paid stock image of a climate protest sign to reflect the general public conversation around climate action, not to suggest an affiliation with another organisation”.
The statement said: “As soon as we became aware the SS4C group had concerns we removed the advert in March 2022.”
The company said Hesta had “a long track record of actively engaging with companies we own” and it believed this approach was “more effective than divestment” at moving away from fossil fuels.
“We have met with representatives from SS4C to explain our active ownership approach to climate change and we continue to welcome dialogue with a range of stakeholders interested in supporting the transition to a low carbon future.
“We detail our active ownership activities in HESTA’s annual report. On our website we provide our share voting record, investment holdings and annual climate reports, which detail progress towards portfolio-wide, net zero targets.”
Last month Hesta said it was opposed to plans by energy company AGL – Australia’s biggest corporate greenhouse gas emitter – to split its business to seperate its fossil fuel generation from the rest of the company.