The Sustainable Banking Movement: What Drives Us Every Day

BY Melissa Fifield Head of CSR & Sustainability Bank of the West

Mar 31st 2022

In early February, a piece that Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert wrote for Fortune lit up my laptop screen. Gellert argued that businesses have a role to play in climate action by making sure their banks and other financial partners align with their own values.

“After all, when your company deposits money into its bank account, those funds aren’t collecting dust in a vault,” he wrote.

Practically, what that means is that money is sent out into the world to finance new business and projects. Whether those projects are Arctic drilling or electric vehicles depends on who you bank with.

“More and more, people are making the connection between their money, their banks, and the environment.

Reading Gellert’s piece was gratifying—we at Bank of the West have been delivering that same message for several years: Where you put your money matters.

Working day in and day out at a leading sustainable bank, I feel his article is further affirmation that real movement is happening around the knowledge gap between finance and sustainability. More and more, people are making the connection between their money, their banks, and the environment. And even better? They’re beginning to talk about it openly.

I was reminded of a piece by Bill McKibben for The New Yorker in November 2020, which explained the connection between banking and climate. I was also reminded of a piece that our own Ben Stuart wrote for Grist in November 2021 about energy transition. And of course I thought of the Rainforest Action Network’s annual report, which comes out around this time, examining which banks provide the most financing for fossil fuel projects.

It bears repeating: A movement is most definitely afoot. And it’s not just propelled by thought leaders like Gellert and McKibben. On a regular basis, we see people and businesses moving their money away from other institutions that don’t share their values around climate and the environment.

Before we get too far into 2022, I wanted to provide an update on what we at Bank of the West are doing to support sustainability and climate action to accelerate the energy transition. We still have a lot of work to do, but the long road ahead shouldn’t diminish what we’ve done—and are still doing.

  1. Leading with action, not just words

    Talking about sustainability is one thing. Backing those words with action is another. That’s why we have the strongest environmental policies of any major US bank, with restrictive financing rules around fossil fuel expansion, oil and gas, fracking, tar sands, Arctic drilling, liquefied natural gas, and coal mining.

  2. Standing by our policies even when it costs us

    We’ve stuck with our policies even through blowback, criticism, and loss of income. In 2018, for example, we weathered backlash from elected officials and lost business due to our stance on coal. But, we realize, that’s the cost sometimes of doing the right thing.

  3. Keeping the right company

    Our strong policies and steadfast dedication have been recognized by important environmental groups. We’re accepted as a member of The Conservation AllianceProtect Our Winters, and 1% for the Planet . We’re honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these organizations that are leading the fight for climate action.

  4. Meeting a $1 billion commitment two years early

    In October 2018, Bank of the West pledged to provide $1 billion in financing over a five-year period for clean, efficient, and renewable energy projects. Thanks to high demand from our customers, we were able to hit that $1 billion target more than two years ahead of schedule. And what did all that money help support? Things like commercial solar panel leases, electric vehicle manufacturing, electric vehicle auto loans, energy-efficient real estate development, energy-efficient home improvements, and companies that convert waste into energy.

  5. Being the first bank to create a product specifically designed to help the planet

    We are the only bank to offer a 1% for the Planet Checking Account, which directs 1 percent of net revenue from the account to environmental non-profits—at no cost to customers. Through a partnership with the fintech company Doconomy, the product also empowers customers to see the carbon impact of their purchases. This account was even recognized as one of Fast Company magazine’s “World Changing Ideas” in 2021.

We’re proud of these accomplishments here at Bank of the West, but they also motivate us keep going and making progress. Someday we hope to look back on this list as just the starting point of something bigger. We want to continue working with companies and organizations that share our goal of contributing to climate action and energy transition. Through partnership, collaboration, and inviting others to join the ranks of climate-conscious commerce, we know meaningful progress can be made.

Gellert’s Fortune piece mentions “dire signs that we’re plummeting deeper into a climate and ecological crisis.” Indeed, it’s not hard to find examples of extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and even food insecurity driven by climate change. Which is, in turn, driven by burning fossil fuels. Which is, in turn, driven by financing fossil fuels expansion and the dirtiest forms of energy extraction.

So we as a society can continue down the path we’ve been on, ratcheting up fragility, instability, and suffering along the way. Or we can choose an alternative future, one defined by a healing climate and a planet that supports human happiness and prosperity for generations to come. Let’s build that future together.

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Melissa Fifield Head of CSR & Sustainability Bank of the West

Melissa Fifield is Bank of the West's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability, where she is responsible for leading and reporting on the bank's sustainability actions and other CSR commitments. She is a global sustainability leader who brings 20 years of experience leading domestic and international programs across social and environmental impact areas. In addition to spending 14 years at Gap Inc. in various sustainability and environmentally focused roles, Fifield also currently serves on the board of directors of the Apparel Impact Institute.

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