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.

"In banking, every meeting - especially board meetings but also loan committee meetings - can involve inches of paper per person," Rountree says. "Every commercial loan package that's presented is about an inch thick. If you have 10 lenders in the room, you can imagine the amount of paper we reduce by having iPads available for those meetings. Not only are we saving paper, we're saving power from the copy machines, the heat those machines put out and the time of people making all those copies." First Green provides e-statements to customers and electronic pay stubs to employees.

Videoconferencing is also used to hold bankwide virtual staff meetings without requiring employees to travel, thus burning less fuel. The bank plans to use iPads as part of its videoconferencing this year.

First Green makes discounted residential construction loans to projects with some level of green certification and believes it is attracting customers that way. It is considering making a future office a net-zero building. "This would give us an opportunity to weigh that against LEED platinum," Rountree says. First Green was one of the last banks to receive a charter. "We think the reason we got our charter has a lot to do with social good," Rountree says.

 

HUNTINGTON BANK

Green is a passion for me. At a personal level I believe in helping the environment," says Zahid Afzal, chief information officer at Huntington, of Columbus, Ohio.

Afzal has regular status meetings with CEO Stephen Steinour about green initiatives. One, called Green2Green, aims to reduce paper use 95% bankwide by 2014.

"All our lending systems, lending processes, commercial, consumer and mortgage systems are being replaced. It's a huge effort we're already working on," Afzal says. "On the commercial side we're already there. On the consumer side we've got one conversion going on now that will be finished in July of this year. A second one will be finished late next year."

The single greenest activity at the bank is solar energy.

"In Ohio, in our tech and ops center where we have our primary data center - it's an almost mile-long facility building - we installed solar panels," Afzal says. "Ohio is not conducive to a lot of sun. We do get a decent amount of sun, but we have to implement special technology that's not just solar, it's light-oriented; we also use daylight to charge batteries and that generates power that goes into the data center." This was a large, expensive project, but Huntington did get tax breaks from the state. Afzal estimates the building's power costs have been cut in half. "The issue was we were running out of power in the data center. There's only so much power you can bring in; otherwise you have to do massive infrastructure work to redo your building," he says. This would have been a $5 million project.

Huntington brought in technology that drastically reduces water consumption used in the plumbing system.

Another major project to reduce use of fossil fuels is videoconferencing. Huntington serves 12 regions, and regional presidents and others were on the road frequently. It installed high-definition videoconferencing from Cisco and Microsoft Lync unified communications for audio, video, chat and document management. The bank is integrating the videoconferencing to Lync, which should further reduce travel. This year one of the targets was a 20% reduction in travel and expense. "A lot of travel between locations that our folks used to do, they don't do anymore," Afzal says. It is a cultural change as well as a technological one, he says. "The technology pieces are easy; these cultural shifts are barriers."

 

CITI

Citigroup, which was one of America's Greenest Banks last year, has been shrinking its data center footprint. In 2004 it had 64 data centers. Today it has 21. "We've done a lot of construction since then and added several data centers, but in the process we've closed many older, less efficient data centers," says Jim Carney, managing director, Global Data Center Strategic Planning. Next year Citi expects to open a site in Mexico but close others, lowering the count to 20.

"We want to have strategic data centers that are large and purpose-built with the most efficient technology energy-wise that we can get," Carney says. His goal for the next several years is to move a lot of processing that's been traditionally done in-country in small tech rooms or non-data-center facilities to these strategic data centers that use shared platforms.

Citi has several LEED-certified data centers around the world, including a platinum LEED certified data center in Frankfurt and a gold-certified one in Texas. "All our new construction goes through the LEED process," Carney says, including the data center being built in Mexico. "It's in our DNA, our thought process when we do construction. We would do good design practices anyway, but LEED gives you a way to measure those against your peers in the industry."

Citi has a large global footprint, with more than 70 million square feet of real estate space around the world. It uses an environmental software management system that monitors carbon footprint, energy consumption and waste management across all of its properties to help it decide where to make improvements.

"Without a clear set of common metrics, it's hard to do that," Carney says. "Because we are a global company - we operate in more than 100 countries around the world - one of the big challenges is getting everyone talking on the same sheet of music when it comes to metrics." Many of the measurements come from each facility's electric and energy bills.

Virtualization software has helped Citi slash power consumption at its data centers, Carney says. While the mainframe environment has always been efficient, distributed server farms have tended to be inefficient. Carney says one reason is that every set of application developers wants their own servers. For seven years Citi been using virtualization with technology partners such as IBM, Sun, HP, and Dell. It is VMWare's largest customer.

Storage virtualization has also been helpful. "We, like a lot of financial services firms, are huge consumers of storage platforms," Carney says. "We have to maintain data for our clients for regulatory and historic purposes. Storage growth has been tremendous in our world, and if we hadn't adopted and deployed shared technology platforms, we would have built many more physical data centers than we have."

More than 50% of Citi's global data center distributed footprint runs across an internal cloud. "Our goal is to put more and more services into our shared environments, into our internal cloud, so we rely less and less on dedicated services," Carney says.

The bank uses techniques such as data deduplication and thin provisioning to keep its data storage needs - currently about 60 petabytes' worth around the world - as low as possible. Data deduplication is a method of reducing storage needs by eliminating redundant data. Thin provisioning is a method of allowing storage space to be allocated on a just-enough and just-in-time basis. It has enabled Citi to prevent a petabyte of extra storage from being provisioned. "We see significant savings in cost and in data center power and cooling," says Jason Kutticherry, vice president of data center planning.

Citi uses tools from all the major storage vendors to do this, including IBM, Hitachi and EMC.

Citi is one of the largest users of water cooling for mainframes, another big energy saver. All its mainframes in North America and in newly constructed data centers have them. In northern parts of the U.S. and in Europe, free cooling - using cool outside air to keep server rooms from overheating - is available about a third of the year, so the bank can shut off its mechanical cooling, which is a large energy user.

Citi also uses videoconferencing. "I can sit in my office and can click and join five people from five different regions at my desktop," Carney says. "It increases productivity, it cuts on travel and returns quality of life to a lot of employees." Citi has 7,500 users on Microsoft Office Communicator, which includes the desktop video. The bank has 586 Cisco multipurpose conference rooms and 14 high-end telepresence rooms around the world. They're "extremely effective for holding large meetings with multiple participants," Carney says. In a recent virtual meeting, 45 people in three countries collaborated on a data center engineering design review."

 

U.S. BANK

U.S. Bank, which also made Bank Technology News' 2011 America's Greenest Banks list, has stayed green through a variety of efforts, including server consolidation and virtualization, telecommuting and recycling.

Using virtualization, the Minneapolis company removed about 1,200 devices from its IT infrastructure last year, and more than 4,000 pieces of equipment over the past two years. "We've made a dramatic reduction in our consumption of power by reducing the physical number of servers in our data center space," says Robert Erickson, executive vice president of infrastructure services. "If you take out a machine and replace it with another that might be larger, but actually takes less power to do the same amount of work, you reduce your power consumption significantly. Through virtualization, what used to be a physical sprawl of boxes is much reduced. Our strategy going forward is to put as much as we can into that virtual environment as opposed to physical."

The bank only has three primary data centers, two for production and a third for disaster recovery. "Our data center consolidation plans for this year are around our satellite operational facilities where we can continue to bring that footprint down," he says.

The $340 billion-asset bank started a new work-from-home program in 2011, and in the technology organization alone it has turned 675 employees into telecommuters, giving them a workstation, a printer, a shredder and a soft phone at home. This has saved time, fuel consumption (the average commute is an hour and a half per day) and environmental resources of the no-longer-needed office space, Erickson says. Managers now determine which employees should telecommute.

Some managers at first were concerned about supervision and work quality. "We put in programs to make sure their productivity was the same or better," Erickson says. "In my groups, productivity has increased for the people that we put into telecommute environement." It's job-specific, he notes: employees whose jobs involve building relationships face to face are not good candidates for telecommuting. But systems analysts, programmers, and others who mostly interact with other employees over the phone or in other locations, their physical location doesn't matter.

The bank performed a refresh of most of its laptops and desktops for more energy efficient models, and it has deployed energy management software that puts computer monitors to sleep when a machine is idle for 15 minutes. "On 70,000 workstations, that's a significant power savings," Erickson says, to the tune of 11 million kilowatt hours of savings per year.

U.S. Bank has adopted paperless consumer loans in 3,100 branches, and produced 100,000 paperless loans last year with the use of e-signature technology.

It has also beefed up its recycling program. "One thing we pride ourselves on is we do lot of recycling and redistribution of equipment," Erickson says. "Any equipment that's no longer useful goes back to the warehouse facility, where we either redeploy it or recycle all the materials."

The bank has recycled thousands of old printers, for instance.

At 1,100 smaller branches it has introduced recycling where it wasn't possible before, working with a startup called Eco2Go that uses United Parcel Service to distribute recyclable waste. Eco2Go ships cardboard recycling boxes to the branches, which they ship back when they're full.

"This leverages a transportation structure already in place that's making deliveries and pickups at our branches every day," says Lisa O'Brien, senior vice president and director of environment affairs. Recycling pickups are on an as-needed basis, as infrequently as every eight weeks in some cases. The service eliminates the need for a waste collection truck to make weekly or biweekly pickups, resulting in reduced carbon emissions and lower fixed monthly costs. The bank expects to recycle 50,000 pounds of materials from these small branches on top of the 20,000 pounds worth of shredded documents it already recycles every year.

U.S. Bank has installed its first solar roof, on a Clayton, Mo., corporate center. "This is a test case, if we can make it work in this location we may deploy solar technology on other buildings," O'Brien says.

U.S. Bank will put a kiosk in the lobby of the Clayton building that displays the real-time energy savings and rate of power generated through the solar system. "When something's on the roof, it's hard for people to understand what it's accomplishing," O'Brien says. The solar panels should generate enough power to fuel the equivalent of that consumed by four or five homes. One reason U.S. Bank chose this Midwest facility is that Clayton is going for the EPA's greenest-city award, which comes with grants and incentives.

Another environmental effort involves social media. U.S. Bank has its own version of Facebook, called UsBook. An environmental affairs community operates on UsBook to gather feedback and ideas from employees. U.S. Bank recently held a contest in which employees made one-minute videos about their green resolutions. The finalists' work was posted on UsBook and staff voted for their favorites.

In a recent U.S. Bank gathering held both in person and by video conference, 40,000 U.S. Bank employees heard about U.S. Bank's environmental sustainability efforts and initiatives, as well as other company news, updates and strategies.  "It's important for employees to know what their company is doing, what we stand for, and the steps we're taking to get there," O'Brien says.