Two recent releases by a noted activist group put tough questions in front of one of the world’s largest financial institutions — which would be wise to pay attention.
On October 19, a notable press release from investment behemoth Vanguard Group made the rounds in the financial world and to a range of media outlets. In short, it announced a big shift in the company’s investment strategy to align with Paris climate goals.
Among the highlights was the announcement of a new target-date fund for “young investors” entitled “Vanguardians of the Galaxy” — which was not only a sizable move for an “old money” company, but also took advantage of a popular film series to get across Vanguard’s “new objectives.”
The release sounded promising; and it struck a chord with those clamoring for real change in big finance. 60 of the world’s largest financial institutions have more than $3.5 trillion invested in fossil fuel-related interests, and those industries rely on that major financing to stay profitable. A shift like this from Vanguard would be significant and perhaps start a domino effect for other institutions.
There was just one problem. It was all fake.
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“While Vanguard wields massive influence over so many global industries, including fossil fuels, they seem to hide in the shadows,” activist Jeff Walburn told Sustainable Brands™. “They lag far behind their competitors on climate risk to the investments they manage — odd short-sightedness for a firm that talks a big game about responsibly managing risk in the long term.”
Walburn, who uses the name as a pseudonym, is an organizer with The Yes Men — an activist group focused on driving attention towards the intersection of big business and climate change. He and The Fixers, an emergent faction of The Yes Men, were largely responsible for the recent PR stunt.
Walburn didn’t stop there. He drafted and released a fake “response” from Marvel (which owns the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise) denouncing the original fake Vanguard release, essentially trying to add further credibility to both efforts.
“The fake response was a fun way to stir the pot,” Walburn said. “Marvel was not a target; they are part of the thematics of the action. And I like the idea that Vanguard lags so dreadfully behind even most other corporations — to the point that another giant corporation would be embarrassed to be standing next to Vanguard, given their role in financing planetary doom.”
Neither Vanguard nor Marvel returned SB’s request for comment.
The “back and forth” between the companies attracted some media attention, but many outlets took down their stories or stopped reporting once they became aware of the hoax. A couple outlets did report on the fake releases — noteworthy considering the origin was the same person who fabricated a 2019 letter claiming to be from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.
What was the larger goal?
These endeavors are largely meant to draw attention to the role large financial institutions play in climate change. Walburn told SB that he thinks there are simple things Vanguard could be doing to change their complicity in “climate collapse,” but the company isn’t showing any real climate leadership.
While stunts like these are not an everyday occurrence, they do show how easy it is to adjust public perception and catch the eyes and ears of those with influence. The dual releases surely drew attention to Vanguard’s ongoing fossil fuel investments (totaling more than $350 billion); and drawing Marvel (unwillingly) into the conversation opens the door to an entirely different audience, as well.
On the business side, it’s clear consumer demands are changing rapidly and activism-level work will only move the needle faster. Consumers are spending more money than ever with companies that are not only transparent about their climate-related objectives, but actively doing work to help mitigate their negative impact and create lasting value for the world.
Although big finance is lagging far behind in the climate conversation, it would be wise for Vanguard and its peers to take heed of the awareness this recent stunt brought on — because the questions The Yes Men are raising will likely move front and center sooner, rather than later.