There are many ways for banks to display environmental friendliness. GreenChoice Bank has found more than most.

The Chicago-area bank says it offers more flexible loan terms to commercial clients that build sustainably or are part of the so-called "green economy." Checking and savings account customers are given incentives to save resources by opting for paperless statements and using remote deposit services.

GreenChoice issues debit cards with a 100-percent recycled plastic core. The company is installing electric car chargers in its branch parking lots, and will make them free to customers. And when GreenChoice committed to building a new Chicago flagship location—the branch was due to open in late August—the milestone was billed as a victory for green banking across the Midwest.

The bank would be one of the first tenants in a building known as the "Green Exchange," a former factory on the city's North Side that has been renovated according to top-notch standards from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Signs emphasizing the branch's high-efficiency lighting, reclaimed-wood doors and recycled countertops would drive home the point that investing with GreenChoice could be construed as akin to investing in the planet.

Most banks don't have as heightened a consciousness about environmental issues, but many have been working green themes into their communications with customers, either in encouraging them to forgo paper statements (which happens to be a major expense reduction initiative, in its own right) or in reporting on their sustainability efforts as part of their messaging about their commitment to the community.

The question is: Does any of this marketing actually matter to consumers?

Answers to this query aren't easy to come by, as gauging customer interest in green banking initiatives is an inexact science. While dozens of banks have been openly embracing environmentally friendly practices, executives are largely unwilling to share proprietary data that demonstrates how, or if, these strategies impact the bottom line.

What's more, while banks promote the green economy as an investment vehicle for the future, a growing number of them are subsuming environmental efforts into corporate social responsibility strategy as a whole, making it all the more difficult to draw direct lines between green initiatives and bottom-line performance.

"People certainly are interested in green," says Sonya Foster, vice president of marketing at Alpine Bank in Colorado. "How interested they are is pretty much a moving target, and it depends on who you ask."

To be fair, there's no question that banks who promote green initiatives are helping the environment. That not only goes for their own carbon footprint, but for the sustainability projects they are championing as lenders.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has partnered with energy companies to invest in solar energy development. Goldman Sachs has done the same in the area of wind energy. Citigroup announced this year that it is among the 14 initial partners in President Obama's Better Buildings Challenge—an effort designed to invest in new, LEED-type structures across the country.

Other banks are championing more grassroots efforts. Wells Fargo, for instance, one of the only banks to publish a dedicated green blog (http://blog.wellsfargo.com/environment), recently spotlighted an employee-driven effort to get rid of disposable cups in lunch rooms. Alpine Bank, with 37 locations on the Western Slope of Colorado, doles out special car loans to customers who plan to purchase hybrid vehicles (which receive 40 mpg or better).

Even a one-branch outfit, New Resource Bank in San Francisco, advertises a "Planet-Smart" debit rewards program benefiting nonprofits. It promises to make a donation to a charitable fund every time customers swipe their Planet-Smart debit card-3 cents per PIN-based transaction and 5 cents per signature-based transaction.

Many bank executives offer anecdotal evidence that speaks to how these initiatives resonate with customers. Some, such as Stephanie Rico, vice president of environmental affairs at Wells Fargo, go so far as to say that the environment ranks in the "top quarter" of issues customers care about.

But no bank has provided specific metrics to prove that customers care about green. On the contrary, some data indicates that customers who ostensibly approve of a bank's green initiatives may not actually be abiding by the same philosophies in their personal lives. Take GreenChoice, for example. Despite all the fanfare around its new LEED-certified facility, Chief Operating Officer Steve Sherman says that a "significant" number of GreenChoice's customers still receive old-fashioned paper bank statements—a blatant waste of paper in the modern digital age.

In explaining this reality, Sherman notes that many GreenChoice customers date back to the days of Family Federal Savings Bank of Illinois, which the GreenChoice holding company acquired last year and rebranded. Century-old Family Federal didn't even have a Web site.

Sherman explains that while GreenChoice emphasizes environmental stewardship, it's not in the business of passing judgments. "We're not here to force our beliefs on others; we want to make people feel good about the choices they make," he says. "At the end of the day we're in the customer-service business, so we need to serve the customer the way that customer wants to be served."

But some experts question whether banks should be marketing their take on the Earth's environment at a time when the environment for the industry remains focused on the re-establishment of financial strength.

Anthony Johndrow, managing partner at Reputation Institute in New York, is among the skeptics. "For a bank to talk about being green when people can't even get mortgages is insane," he says. "I don't want my bank to be green; I want it to be stable, I want it to start lending money again."

Johndrow's firm, which advises corporate clients on reputation management, has conducted a number of studies examining the importance that customers (of all industries, but especially banking) assign to the different dimensions of a company's profile, including its stance on green issues. His research indicates that sustainability and environmentalism matter less than most anything else to the general public—far below areas such as products and services, governance and financial performance.

The only way banks can get customers to care about green, Johndrow says, is if they realign their messaging to demonstrate how promoting sustainability can tie in with core competencies such as lending and financing new projects.

"If they're going to do something to help out society, it's not by doing something on the side," he argues. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much recycling you do as a company; unless that recycling ties back to the business, it's not even going to register with the customers who matter most."

The debate over the value of green isn't only occurring in pundit circles; in some cases, it's playing out around conference tables at individual banks.

At PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, which trademarked the term "green branch" and is preparing to begin construction of the world's tallest "green" skyscraper, Corporate Real Estate Director Gary Saulson says marketing around the company's sustainable building efforts has been invaluable. "With the exception of one community, [PNC's green branches] have been the first green buildings" in the markets where they've been built, Saulson says. This means the buildings have been the subject of local print, radio and television coverage, which has helped to spread the word.

Yet PNC CEO James Rohr (profiled in this month's cover story) says that while he's proud of PNC's track record on green, he isn't particularly interested in marketing those efforts in the company's communications with customers. He worries that doing so could alienate at least some consumers' political sensibilities. "There's a group of people [for whom] when you say green, they think global warming and Al Gore," Rohr says.

Bill Peterson, chief credit officer at New Resource Bank, agrees. "Among interested parties, there's this perception that by going green, you're sacrificing the bottom line," he says. "This couldn't be farther from the truth, but from the bank's perspective, that's something we have to manage carefully."

Perhaps with this in mind, many banking institutions have put their green efforts under the umbrella of their broader corporate social responsibility initiatives. Wells Fargo, for instance, includes environmental data in its annual corporate sustainability report. PNC and New Resource do the same.

Many bank officials are quick to note that these organizational decisions have no bearing on their faith in the green economy; most executives agree that this segment will become mainstream by the end of the decade—much like the Internet economy did last decade.

For now, say executives including Sherman at GreenChoice, couching these projects as socially responsible makes them an easier sell. "Green is important, but it's only one part of the approach," Sherman says. "Businesses that have a stronger element of social responsibility in how they operate are better suited to succeed in this economy."

In the short term, the need to promote green initiatives doesn't look particularly urgent. Foster, the marketing executive at Alpine Bank, suspects that until a majority of Americans get their personal finances in order, customers likely will make their banking decisions based exclusively on what their budgets will allow.

"People are still primarily concerned about jobs and the housing market," Foster says. "Until those situations improve, no matter how good a bank's programs are, green will be No. 2.

Green Benefits of Online Banking

It should come as no surprise that the financial industry represents a significant percentage of paper use worldwide.

But according to PayItGreen, a consortium of financial companies designed to promote electronic banking, the numbers are downright staggering. In one year, by switching from paper to electronic billing, statements and payments, the average American household would save 6.6 pounds of paper, eliminate 171 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, avoid the release of 63 gallons of wastewater into the environment and forgo the need for 4.5 gallons of gasoline to mail paper items.

For more information, visit www.payitgreen.org.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.