The Australian Securities and Investments Commission launched its first court proceedings related to allegations of greenwashing, against Mercer Superannuation Australia, Melbourne, the regulator said Tuesday.
ASIC said in a statement that Mercer Super allegedly made misleading statements about the sustainable nature and characteristics of some of its superannuation investment options, with the inclusion of companies involved in the production of carbon-intensive fossil fuels and alcohol, as well as gambling.
"This is the first time ASIC has taken an Australian entity to court regarding alleged greenwashing conduct, and it reflects our continuing efforts to ensure sustainability-related claims made by financial institutions are accurate," said Sarah Court, deputy chairwoman of the regulator, in the statement.
Mercer is the trustee of the Mercer Super Trust, which has about A$28 billion ($19.4 billion) in assets. ASIC alleged that Mercer made statements on its website about seven of the trust's "sustainable plus" investment options, marketing these options as excluding carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as thermal coal. Exclusions were also said to apply to those companies involved in alcohol production and gambling, ASIC's statement said.
"However, ASIC alleges members who took up the Sustainable Plus options had investments in companies involved in industries the website statements said were excluded," the statement said, citing 15 companies involved in the extraction or sale of carbon-intensive fossil fuels, including Glencore. The regulator also found 15 alcohol-production companies, including Carlsberg, and 19 gambling companies among the options.
"In doing so, ASIC alleges Mercer made false and misleading statements and engaged in conduct that could mislead the public," ASIC's statement said.
ASIC is seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties, as well as injunctions to prevent Mercer from continuing to make any of the alleged misleading statements on its website and orders requiring that it publicize any contraventions found by the court, the statement said. A date for the first case management hearing is yet to be scheduled.
A statement provided by a Mercer spokeswoman confirmed that ASIC had launched a civil penalty proceeding in the Federal Court against Mercer Super, the trustee of the Mercer Super Trust.
"Mercer has cooperated with ASIC throughout its investigation, and will carefully consider ASIC's concerns in this evolving area. It would be inappropriate to comment further as the matter is now before the courts," the statement said.
ASIC has already issued more than A$140,000 in fines in relation to alleged greenwashing.
The Mercer Super proceeding marks the first time that ASIC has launched court action after its powers were enhanced to take action regarding a broader range of superannuation trustee conduct.