America's Greenest Banks

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In times of economic stress, ideals like nature conservation often fall by the wayside as companies focus on turning a profit and generating jobs.

Yet some conscientious organizations hold on to environmental goals despite the odds, and in the process of being frugal with natural resources find ways to trim costs, gain business from like-minded borrowers and improve community relationships.

It isn't easy to measure who's the greenest. A large bank might set aside millions of dollars for green initiatives yet have an enormous carbon footprint that no reasonable person would consider "green." A small bank might consume relatively small amounts of energy but be careless in its use of imported materials or lend to companies that pollute the environment. For our America's Greenest Banks list this year, we have identified four that have demonstrated a strong interest in helping and not harming the environment, and that have put time and effort into projects - especially IT-related initiatives - that help minimize the company's use of natural resources.

 

FIRST GREEN BANK

Ken LaRoe had just sold a bank (Florida Choice Bank in Mount Dora) and was driving cross-country with his family. He was reading "Let My People Go Surfing," by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, and trying to decide what to do for a career encore.

"I wanted to do more than start a bank; I wanted to start a bank that would make a difference," LaRoe says. That difference would be environmental sustainability. "I used to say I was a rabid environmentalist, but that didn't sit well with customers and shareholders. Now I say I'm a committed environmentalist."

Executives at First Green Bank, which opened in 2009, are keenly aware of the need to live up to that handle. "We want to be a true green bank," says Paul Rountree, the bank's president. "We want to be sure that we're never questioned to be greenwashing. When you have that name, you have to validate it through your actions."

The new Mount Dora headquarters is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum building. Sixty solar panels cover the roof and provide 14.4 kilowatts of power, which is not a lot, but the building is also designed to consume as little electricity as possible. The bank recently moved from a 4,000-square-foot building to a 12,000-square-foot building and the power use is the same.

The roof of the building is a unique butterfly design pitched so that water runs to the center and flows through a spout into an 80,000-gallon cistern. That collected rainwater is used to irrigate the planters outside and provide indoor plumbing.

Another section of the roof is an 1,800-square-foot garden planted with native wildflowers. It's used for events and employee breaks. The vegetation insulates the building, reducing the heating required.

In choosing a location for the new headquarters, First Green's founders wanted a spot that would disturb the fewest trees. The pine trees that were cut down for the construction were used for flooring and a boardroom table. The ceilings are made from cedar from a building that was torn down nearby.

Meeting LEED standards doesn't provide tangible benefits to a business, Rountree says, "just the joy of knowing you're doing something right." LEED is a point system, and points can be gathered in several categories, such as use of rapidly renewable materials. "It's not very green to order furniture from China," Rountree says. The wood used in the construction was from locally harvested trees and processed at a mill within 15 minutes of the site.

First Green's parking lots all have charging stations for electric and hybrid cars, for use by employees and customers. Its couriers, who pick up deposits from customers, use hybrid cars. Another hybrid car is an employee loaner vehicle, which any employee can sign out when they want, for any reason. It's constantly out on loan. Employees are also urged to drive high-mileage cars, and offered 0% loans on them.

The exterior lighting at the headquarters is low-wattage LED. It produces no "light pollution" because the bulbs project straight down rather than causing a glow. The bank uses Florida-friendly, drought-tolerant landscaping.

The fieldstone used in the building is a local product. The roof's large overhangs prevent direct sunlight from overheating the building. The large windows mean there's little lighting needed. The flooring in the company gym is a cork/rubber composite that's 100% recycled.

A juice bar offering local coffees and juices has countertops made of recycled counterfeit money shredded by the Fed.

When First Green does purchase wood, it's bamboo, which is rapidly renewable; the ceilings are mostly made of bamboo.

The bank tries to hold paperless meetings. Executives such as commercial lenders and senior management are given iPads loaded up with all documents to be reviewed.

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