Only a few months ago bankers were touting their sustainability and launching ambitious green programs, but today hard-pressed banking companies are slashing every conceivable cost, including some sustainability programs and staff.

That is a mistake. Sustainability is not a frill or a marketing program that can be deferred or discarded in tough economic times. It is a vital strategy for tough times. Over the short term, it offers quick, money-saving fixes with significant return on investment. Over the long term, it cuts costs and generates revenue, giving your company a competitive advantage over less sustainable rivals.

But — and it's a big "but" — in today's difficult economy, financial institutions must focus on embedding genuine sustainability in their corporate culture, not just in their press releases. No more self-congratulatory announcements about the branch manager who sometimes rides a bike to work to reduce the bank's carbon footprint, and no more dubious programs like "eco credit cards" and "green checking."

Workplaces — from office towers to branches and data centers — must be green. This lowers operating expenses and reduces absenteeism and health care costs, all at a cost comparable to (or lower than) conventional new buildings and renovations. Green buildings reduce energy costs by about 35%, water use by 30% to 50%, and waste costs by 50% to 90% when compared with conventional buildings.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc. is constructing over 100 green branches. It estimates the operating savings for each branch, compared with a conventional one, at 35%. As for the up-front costs, each green branch costs $100,000 less to build than a conventional facility.

Sustainable facilities also help a company make money. They can improve productivity by 6% to 16%, according to several studies.

Of course, in today's economy, most banking companies are not moving into new buildings. How can they reap the many financial benefits of green workplaces? They can implement green retrofits of their buildings. The retrofits enable companies to introduce — and maximize — green benefits into their workplaces in prompt and cost-effective ways, and with only minor impact on day-to-day operations.

Financial institutions can also save money by greening their operations. Replace some business travel — and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions — with videoconferencing, online document sharing, group instant messaging, and conference calls. Encourage customers to Use PayItGreen and other Internet services, which will let you save on paper and printing costs for bills, statements, and notices, not to mention millions of dollars in postage.

Overhaul purchasing policies to reduce waste, and implement recycling programs to reduce trash hauling and landfill fees. Bank of America's recycling programs have saved the company millions of dollars.

Provide green training for staff members to assure that they implement the company's programs. Employees are also important sources of new ideas for reducing costs.

By investing in the future, sustainability programs can lay the foundation for banks to make money over the short and long term.

Provide the green products and services your customers are increasingly seeking, from specialized mortgages for buyers of sustainable homes to loans for homeowners who want to make their conventional homes more energy-efficient.

Over the last few years B of A has implemented a $20 billion initiative to support the growth of environmentally sustainable business activity. Citigroup's Sustainable Development Investment Program is making investments in renewable energy, forestry, waste and water management, and clean technology.

Bankers should also implement programs to reduce future risk from serious environmental events and more stringent green regulations, which have been enacted in Europe and are predicted for the United States.

Lloyds TSB calculates the environmental risks of every investment and lending decision, including the impact of global climate change. "We are looking at … [the] potential impact environmental changes could have on certain sectors over a mid-to-long term and building that into our calculations to decide if we really want to be as heavily involved in those sectors," says Richard Cooper, the U.K. company's head of corporate responsibility.

To become more sustainable — and profitable — banks must make their business and supplier relationships greener, starting with enforcing and expanding environmental standards for suppliers. Some multinational companies have insisted on third-party environmental audits of their suppliers. Many green supplies cost no more than conventional ones and sometimes cost less.

Buying supplies locally, a concept dismissed as quaintly old-fashioned under the globalization regime, often makes good financial sense, because it reduces shipping costs, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, provide green education for your customers. These programs, if they are instructive and not self-promotional, will create favorable word of mouth that is more effective than any advertising for expanding your customer base. HomeStreet Bank in Seattle offers a Living Green educational series that covers three topics: working green, buying green, and green home remodeling.

Over the past several years many bankers have viewed sustainability as a frill or an annoying chore. Today, with so many long-held assumptions getting turned on their head, it is time to recognize that sustainability is a proven strategy for lowering costs and making money.

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