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March, 2024

ASIC wins first greenwashing civil penalty against Vanguard

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has successfully upheld its first greenwashing civil penalty, in a case against Vanguard Investments Australia.

The Federal Court found Vanguard Investments Australia contravened the law by making misleading claims about certain environmental, social and governance (ESG) applied to investments in a Vanguard index fund.

At a hearing on 8 March 2024, Vanguard admitted to engaging in conduct that was liable to mislead the public about its Vanguard Ethically Conscious Global Aggregate Bond Index Fund.

ASIC Deputy Chair Sarah Court said: “By Vanguard’s own admission, it misled investors on a number of its claims. In this case, Vanguard promised its investors and potential investors that the product would be screened to exclude bond issuers with significant business activities in certain industries, including fossil fuels, when this was not always the case.”

Investments held by the Fund were based on an index called the Bloomberg Barclays MSCI Global Aggregate SRI Exclusions Float Adjusted Index (Index). Vanguard had claimed the Index excluded only companies with significant business activities in a range of industries, including those involving fossil fuels, but has admitted that a significant proportion of securities in the Index and the Fund were from issuers that were not researched or screened against applicable ESG criteria.

‘As ASIC’s first greenwashing court outcome, the case shows our commitment to taking on misleading marketing and greenwashing claims made by companies in the financial services industry. It sends a strong message to companies making sustainable investment claims that they need to reflect the true position,” said Court.

These false representations were made in 12 product disclosure statements, a media release, statements published on Vanguard’s website, a Finance News Network interview on YouTube, and a presentation at a Finance News Network Fund Manager Event published online.

The matter has been listed for further hearing on 1 August 2024, at which the Court will consider the appropriate penalty to impose for the conduct.

As of 26 February 2021, the total funds or assets under management of the Vanguard Ethically Conscious Global Aggregate Bond Index Fund was over $1 billion.