Innovations and Payment Systems

Banks that go green


A ‘green’ snapshot: How some U.S. banks are making environmental eco-friendly moves.

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Earth Day happens just once a year, but U.S. banks have a variety of environmentally friendly initiatives in place the other 364 days, as well. Financial institutions are demonstrating their commitment to the earth through the use of recycled paper and office recycling programs, a focus on energy efficiency, educational efforts, the purchase of carbon offsets, adherence to industry standards and environmental event sponsorships.

But banks are also currently involved in lesser-known — and sometimes unexpected — green initiatives that are making an impact.

According to Marc Heisterkamp, manager of corporate and investment real estate with the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to sustainable building design and construction, banks have two main areas where green changes can do the most good environmentally: real estate and air travel. It is in these two areas that some banks are innovating.

Taking the lead on LEED

When it comes to banks’ offices and branches, “real estate comes front and center as an opportunity and something they need to address,” Heisterkamp says. When it comes to making their buildings more eco-friendly, “Almost every major U.S. bank has a large office property that’s going green,” says Heisterkamp.

A number of banks are reducing their environmental impact on the real estate front by adhering to a set of building standards called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). “LEED is a consensus-based green building program,” Heisterkamp says. In order for a building to receive a LEED certification, “It really has to be verified by an independent property,” Heisterkamp says. “It allows us to avoid the elements of greenwash that are so prevalent today,” a reference to the act of over-representing a company’s environmentally friendly practices.

LEED certification is subdivided into four increasingly stringent levels — certified, silver, gold and platinum — and incorporates five credit areas: energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites, material and resources, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality.

Banks that have adopted LEED are quick to praise the program. “We think it is a very holistic approach to environmental design and energy efficiency,” says Lois Grobert, Sustainable Real Estate Operations manager with Citi Realty Services.

According to USGBC’s Heisterkamp, PNC Bank was ahead of the banking pack when it came to green building. “They were looking at this long before others were,” he says. PNC’s LEED-certified Firstside Center in Pittsburgh, which opened in 2000, was under construction way back in 1998, meaning PNC has been involved in green building for a full decade. The reason for taking the early initiative in going green? “We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do,” says Gary Saulson, director of corporate real estate for PNC Financial Services Group.

Saulson is a major proponent of green building. “We think there are tremendous corporate benefits,” he says, citing lower cost of maintenance, a nearly 35 percent decrease in utility costs across PNC’s green portfolio, a reduction in turnover and greater productivity. PNC employees have embraced LEED-certified workplaces that incorporate increased natural light; environmentally friendly materials (such as 72 percent recycled carpet material that is 100 percent recyclable); energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems; and green fabrics (eco-friendly, not always literally) on office furniture. PNC strives to use local, recycled and recyclable product in its buildings, Saulson says. “There is a sense of employee pride, I hope, in all the buildings we operate. But there is a special sense of pride in the green buildings,” he says.

Green takes root in Manhattan

Another example of LEED building is taking place in New York City. “JPMorgan Chase is committed to reaching LEED Platinum in the renovation of our 270 Park Avenue headquarters building, and we are working closely with the U.S. Green Buildings Council and our designers, architects and engineers throughout the process,” says bank spokeswoman Darlene R. Taylor. “Key to the firm’s environmental commitment is reducing our own green house gas emissions. In the renovation of this building, we are using the latest in technology and materials for energy and water efficiencies as well as utilizing reused and recycled products, FCS-certified woods and LED lamps where possible,” Taylor says. “When it is completed, we will have a more efficient building that will better serve our employees and clients.”

Environmentally friendly initiatives don’t need to cost more than less eco-friendly traditional approaches, and can save the bank money. A company that opts for LEED certification of its offices or branches doesn’t need to break the bank, Heisterkamp says. “There is no reason they couldn’t do it in the same budget as a typical bank branch,” he says.

Citi’s Grobert doesn’t entirely disagree, but notes that LEED can have its costs. Studies on LEED fall into two categories, she says. In one group are those studies that show no significant cost increase. The other group of studies indicates there could be a slight increase in cost, sometimes related to the extensive documentation requirement for buildings seeking LEED certification. “As teams become more experienced in use of the system, cost begins to dissipate,” she says.

Lessening the impact from business travel

Flying to meetings and conferences means the consumption of natural resources and production of harmful jet aircraft emissions. Wells Fargo has started to track consumption and emissions resulting from business air travel. As more data is collected, “we’ll be able to tell how our initiatives reduce business travel,” says Stephanie Rico, communications consultant with the environmental affairs team at Wells Fargo & Co. “You have to measure it to understand how you’re doing.”

Wells Fargo already has several initiatives under way that aim to reduce time employees spend in transit. These include a network of 100 Web-enabled conference rooms that allow “face-to-face” conferences with shared computer screens and online collaboration tools.

Capital One‘s “Future of Work” strategy provides employees the flexibility to work wherever they are most effective, whether from the office, home or road. The program “reduces the use of energy with more efficient use of space as well as our overall real estate footprint as it delays the need for new facilities as our population grows,” says company spokeswoman Julie Rakes at Capital One. “With more associates now working flexibly from home, we help reduce pollution from traffic and highway congestion.”

At Capital One’s West Creek Campus in Richmond, Va., commuting patterns have helped reduce greenhouse gases 7.6 percent, Rakes says.

Commute in a hybrid

Bank of America reimburses $3,000 to workers who buy a new hybrid vehicle. “This benefit began as a pilot in 2006 in L.A., Boston and Charlotte and was so well received internally that last year we expanded it to all associates companywide,” says Senior Vice President of Media Relations Colleen Haggerty. Almost 2,000 Bank of America workers have so far received reimbursements. “This benefit is not only a good retention tool to keep our associates happy, but it also fits squarely with the company’s long-standing focus around protecting the environment,” Haggerty says.

Recruitment and retention

Proponents of green initiatives say they can play a role in attracting and retaining high-caliber employees. “There is a growing consciousness of environmental impact,” says the Green Building Council’s Heisterkamp. “There is an interesting trend with younger generations making decisions on who they will work for based on the employer’s stance on environmental issues.”

“Anecdotal evidence from our recruitment team also suggests that recruits give considerable weight to a company’s environmental and social responsibility track record when selecting a potential employer,” says Citi Campus Strategy Director Deborah Bertan. “And in discussions with some of recent hires, we discovered that our efforts, which we highlight in recruitment events and throughout the new hire process, were a factor in determining whether or not they decided to join our firm.” That assessment is reiterated by Wells Fargo. “Given the choice, most people want to work for a responsible company that’s working to make a positive difference,” Rico says.

See related stories: “Spin the Green-O-Meter,” “Green credit cards interactive,” “Poll: U.S. not very eco-friendly on credit cards,” “Artists give recycled cards new life,” “10 ways to go green with credit cards

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