Jamming Citigroup's PR Message

In mid-April, Citigroup launched a $100 million global ad campaign titled "This is Citigroup." Using images of elderly people, and people from Hong Kong to Brazil, the ads portray a caring bank, committed to local communities. But environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which has waged a boycott against Citigroup for the past two years, says the bank completely ignores environmental and social concerns and is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. RAN recently launched a counter campaign featuring photos that document destructive Citigroup-funded projects.

Jennifer Bauduy interviews RAN's Ilyse Hogue:


What spurred RAN to launch the counter ad campaign?

Citi's objective with their ad campaign was to put a positive spin on their global presence around the world. They use individuals from different countries, in different geographical settings, holding the happy red umbrella. They are trying to position themselves as the warm fuzzy bank that cares about people.

They promote themselves as leaders -- as economic, environmental, and social leaders. What RAN is saying is: if you want to be a leader, then the progressive financial institutions are the ones that are getting out of environmentally destructive investments like deforestation and other activities that promote climate change.

If they are going to talk about their presence in South America or in Asia without talking about their profiting off of eco-system destruction, species extinction and deforestation, that is irresponsible.

How exactly are they profiting from that?

Citigroup is the number one lender to the fossil fuel industry, and it's in the top three lending directly to logging industries, number one to mining. All of these activities have disastrous impact on the natural world.

A lot of people don't understand that the capital investment that's provided by Citibank is the fuel for the machine of destruction [around the world]. The oil companies, the logging companies, they can't function without the massive influx of investments that they receive from Citibank and other big banks.

Can you give us a specific example?

In California, Citi underwrote the bonds for Maxxam Corporation, which was responsible for logging the Headwaters Forest. Headwaters was California's last big private stand of old-growth redwoods. The thing that was unique about the Headwaters project is that Citi underwrote the bonds using the trees as collateral. So, in order to pay back the loan, the company had to log. It was a vicious circle of environmental destruction.

What banks or financial institutions do you hold up as a positive model?

The one that we hold up is ABN/AMRO, which is the leading Dutch Bank. They came out with a groundbreaking policy last year committing to cease funding for all extractive industries in high-conservation-value forests. It's the right thing to do. It's what we hold up to Citi as the example that they must follow. It's also the economically wise thing to do. Banks like ABN/AMRO are getting ahead of the curve in terms of shifting their investments to sustainable alternatives.

The vast majority of Americans consider themselves environmentalists and they want to know that the companies that they are doing business with uphold those values rather than under cut them.

Citigroup might argue that changing its policies would hurt it financially. Do you know if the Dutch company has suffered any consequences?

As we talk to Citi and other leading investment banks, we need to point out that this is an investment in the long-term future of the planet and people. And so, to look at quarterly returns is disingenuous in terms of the environmental and social profit we will reap next year, five years from now, and seven generations from now.

I think that the ABN/AMRO commitment represents what consumers are increasingly pressing for. As we say to Citi, "It's not if you change your practices, but when." And we have to do it sooner rather than later because we are still losing acres of forests at an unprecedented rate, and we are still heating up the planet at an unprecedented rate.

How successful has your boycott been?

Now, in the second year of the campaign, I think we've built awareness and we are seeing that awareness translates into credit card cut-ups and students switching their loans and bigger [demonstrations]. I think we are getting more attention and more awareness about Citibank as the leading bank in destruction.

What will a credit card cut-up accomplish?

One of the slogans that's emerged from the campaign is people saying, "Hey Citi, not with my money." More and more people understand that it's their credit card balances, their savings accounts and their student loans that often go towards these types of destructive activities. So cutting up your Citibank card is a symbolic act to let Citibank know, "I will not continue to do business with you because I don't agree with your destructive environmental record."

What has Citigroup's response been?

They say that they are interested in what we are putting forward to them, that they are interested in being social and environmental leaders. And we continue to dialogue and negotiate. But as we have told Citibank, we are interested in action, rather than words.

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com, where this article originally appeared.

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