Climate Finance | March 14, 2024

Happy Returns: Elaborate spoof takes aim at Vanguard’s retreat from climate commitments

David Bank

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ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

Climate change can be stressful, including for investors profiting from fossil fuels in the face of record-breaking temperatures around the world.

Climate activists today are unveiling a comprehensive, if entirely fake, emotional support toolkit for soothing such anxiety and helping investors sleep at night without changing their investments – or their asset manager.

The “Many Happy Returns Climate Adaptation Toolkit” is an early April Fool’s Day stunt aimed at clients and employees of Vanguard Group.

The $9 trillion asset manager has been in the sights of climate activists, especially since its 2022 withdrawal from climate efforts such as Net Zero Asset Managers (see, “Move over, BlackRock. Vanguard is the new target for climate activists”). A report from a German environmental group last year found that Vanguard is the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels, with a total of $269 billion in coal, gas and oil holdings.  

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the effects of climate change, you’re not alone,” says the voice on the fictitious sustainability hotline (1-800-771-4401) for Vanguard customers and employees that is part of the campaign. “Sometimes our investments can impact the climate in ways we don’t prefer. And that makes bad feelings happen. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you resolve that discomfort.”

The Happy Returns toolkit also includes “sanitized information access,” to exclude content about undesirable impacts of investments, and mutual support groups to help customers stay in the market even after climate disasters (“We need our clients to not only profit from market trends but to do so guilt-free”).  A fake medication, Dissonex, is available “when we can’t help being a part of the problem.” A made-up study in a non-existent medical journal purports to examine “the psychological impacts of climate change, focusing mainly on climate change anxiety and cognitive dissonance.”

Social engineering

Did we mention the whole thing is a hoax? 

The Happy Returns toolkit is the latest social satire cum performance art by the group Yes Men, which in 2019 duped some reporters with a fake letter from Blackrock’s Larry Fink. 

“Our projects are always revealed very promptly,” said one of the creators, Keil Troisi, film writer and director who for the project used the stage name Jeff Walburn. “If any of them were believed for any amount of time, it kind of defeats the purpose. Because we also don’t want to accidentally do Vanguard’s work for them or accidentally make them look like they’re doing something.”

Vanguard has questioned “the applicability of net zero approaches to the broadly diversified index funds favored by many Vanguard investors.” The firm has said it continues to engage with portfolio companies around climate issues. In last year’s proxy season, Vanguard opposed nearly three-quarters of 100 shareholder proposals involving environmental, social and governance, or ESG, issues tracked by Morningstar. Vanguard’s asset management rivals, BlackRock and State Street, supported 55 and 60 of the proposals, respectively. 

Vanguard did not respond to an email from ImpactAlpha seeking comment.  

Posing as Vanguard, Yes Men engineered its way into this week’s Wall Street Green Summit where a member, “Tara Hart,” presented the Happy Returns marketing campaign. The satire only gradually dawned on the audience. 

“We got punked,” the summit’s organizer, Peter Fusaro, told ImpactAlpha.

Troisi, a Pennsylvania native like Vanguard, also wormed his way onto local television station WBRE in Wilkes-Barre. In a paid segment with the station’s anchors, he introduced a colleague, “Jack Flowers” with a large goldfish bowl-like “Terradome” over his head. The one-person biosphere “simulates immersion in a robust temperate forest, which is clinically demonstrated to reduce stress.” Soundscapes “relax the user and drown out stressful stimuli.” If the anchors suspected they were being played they never showed it.

“It does actually need to be funny,” Troisi said. “Kind of rewarding critical thought and punishing non-critical thought is the way that I sleep at night thinking about it.”

Changing of the guard

The Happy Returns toolkit was created in support of the broader activist campaign Vanguard S.O.S., which has been agitating against Vanguard for several years. Troisi said the two groups maintained plausible separation “because we tend to use tactics that are a little more mischievous.”

Troisi said that campaign aspired to channel Vanguard’s thinking in a way that could lead to actual change. The asset manager has introduced the Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund Admiral as a “fossil free” option, although the fund maintains fossil fuel holdings, according to Morningstar and As You Sow

After working on the campaign for almost a year, Troisi said Yes Men saw an opportunity with last month’s announcement that Vanguard CEO Tim Buckley will step down by the end of this year. 

“We could tie in the idea of Tim Buckley leaving behind some kind of bullshit greenwash program in his place as a way to say, ‘Sorry, I basically only backtracked while I was here. I hope somebody else does better.'”