Bank gives $50m as a green gift to the globe

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Fifty million dollars for the environment was promised yesterday by the HSBC bank, in what is believed to be the biggest British corporate donation for green projects.

The money – £35m, over five years – is to be split between three green charities and used to improve water quality and supply, help to save endangered plants and train young conservationists across the world. It will also allow 2,000 of the bank's staff to take part in conservation work.

The funds will support freshwater management projects by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on three of the world's great rivers, China's Yangtze, Brazil's Amazon and America's Rio Grande. It will establish a network linking 500 botanic gardens in 111 countries as reservoirs of threatened plant species, through the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) based in Kew. Training will also be provided for 200 environmental scientists in developing countries through the green research and education charity Earthwatch.

One aspect of the donation that may raise eyebrows is the large sum to be spent on improving water quality and flow in the Yangtze: some of the river's problems are due to the giant and much-criticised Three Gorges dam, which HSBC helped to fund. (The bank underwrote a loan to buy turbines several years ago.)

However, WWF said yesterday that, after "difficult and frank" discussions, it was satisfied that HSBC had changed its investment policy and would be unlikely to fund such a dam again. The bank said it would no longer finance any environmentally damaging schemes.

HSBC, founded as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and now the biggest bank in Europe, is aware that its donation could be seen as "greenwashing" – merely buying a favourable image for itself by donating to the environment, as part of the increasingly fashionable concern for corporate social responsibility. Sir John Bond, the chairman, said: "I acknowledge there is a degree of scepticism about that and particularly about greenwashing and I have to say we certainly don't mind if our actions make our customers think well of us or if we're seen as a more attractive employer."

However, he said, HSBC recognised it had wider responsibilities to society than just being a successful bank and the company had been one of the earliest to realise the importance of the environment. The big donation was for projects that could make "a sustained difference" or do things that would not otherwise get done in areas of vital concern.

Support for it came from a leader of Britain's scientific community. Lord May, President of the Royal Society, warmly welcomed the partnership. "Business and industry are held by many ideologically oriented groups to be the problem, not the solution, but if global business is not to be engaged as part of the solution, then there is no solution," he said.

The donation of $10m a year represents only a tenth of one per cent of the bank's annual profits of $9.7bn. But HSBC's offer has been enthusiastically embraced by the three charities. Peter Wyse Jackson, head of BGCI, said: "It is a magnificent opportunity of making a real contribution to averting the current extinction crisis."