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How Seventh Generation got Unilever to take a closer look at its banks

The company discovered that the cash on its balance sheet was generating 9,000 metric tons of CO2.

Palm oil trees and nuts

Seventh Generation discovered that emissions related to its banking relationships are roughly equivalent to the footprint from its primary ingredient, palm oil. Image via Shutterstock/Photoongraphy

Seventh Generation, a maker of bio-based household cleansers, believes its banks generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as the primary ingredient in its products, palm oil.

It’s a "meaningful" amount: 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is bigger than the company’s combined footprint from Scope 1 and Scope 2, the omissions created by its operations and its energy purchases, according to Seventh Generation CFO Nimerta Sirichand, who spoke at the GreenFin 24 conference.

Seventh Generation began reporting this metric three years ago, an unusual step for a company outside the financial sector. Calculating the data required collaboration between Seventh Generation’s sustainability and finance teams, and cooperation from its parent company, Unilever. The process of calculating and disclosing that number is not "exact science, but we’re not looking for perfection, we are looking for directional results," Sirichand said.

Corporate cash funds fossil fuel

So-called "financed emissions" measure the impact of banks’ cash management and loan portfolios. Financial institutions with decarbonization or net-zero targets report them as part of their Scope 3 emissions inventories. That disclosure isn’t mandatory for non-financial corporations, but more companies — Seventh Generation and Patagonia among them — are starting to pay heed. The motivator among those early adopters: An estimated 20 percent of the $7 trillion in cash held by U.S. companies (including climate-conscious Apple, Google and Microsoft) is funding fossil fuel investments.

"We have to look at this through the lens of how it’s helping turn off the tap," said Ashley Orgain, chief impact officer at Seventh Generation, speaking at GreenFin 24. "Because that’s ultimately what we’re working toward. We don’t want the continuous flow of capital to these fossil fuels companies. We definitely don’t want it to be ours. What is it going to take for it not to be anyone’s?"

Pressure points: Sustainability, finance and treasury

The analysis took months of legwork, education and convincing by Orgain’s organization, starting with the Seventh Generation finance team. On a parallel path, Orgain approached her counterpart within Unilever’s global sustainability team about involving the global treasury team, so that the U.S. finance team would be willing to assist with data-gathering. "What’s so exciting about this work is getting to partner with our CFO and treasury team for the first time ever," she said.

While Seventh Generation is run as a U.S. subsidiary, all treasury functions are managed by the parent organization and details about banking relationships are managed at the regional and global levels. The only cash Seventh Generation was able to move on its own were holdings in its foundation, which it moved early in this process to Amalgamated Bank, the largest union-owned bank in the U.S., Orgain said.

"We have been clear with all the partners that we work with within Unilever, we’re not going to disclose the names of these banks," Orgain said. "This wasn’t our intention, we weren’t going to shame these banks for any of these practices … This was really an opportunity to begin a conversation and start engaging, because that’s where we know we can influence."  

'Infect the parent'

Siricihand recalled her initial reaction when approached by Orgain was skepticism, and that gathering the data would be "complicated" because of Unilever’s structure. Over time, she embraced the idea that banks and financial partners are an integral part of corporate supply chains and should be considered in emissions reporting.

"One thing that stuck with me as we walked through this process was … every job is a climate job," Sirichand said. "So regardless of where you are in that [consumer packaged goods] organization, or whatever organization you choose to be in, there is an impact that you can make if you are willing to be partners."

It took a couple of years for the Seventh Generation team to "infect the parent," convincing them to become actively involved. The Seventh Generation finance team developed a process for this calculation with consulting firm Topo Finance. Here is what they looked at:

  • Year-end balances for Unilever’s six corporate banking partners.
  • An assessment of their lending portfolios.
  • An analysis of their emissions disclosures.
  • A rough calculation of emissions produced by each $1 million of investment.

Seventh Generation’s "financial fingerprint" also considers qualitative measures for its banks, insurance companies and retirement plan providers. Here are some questions considered:

  • Does the company have a corporate net-zero commitment by 2050?
  • What is its policy on investments that might fund deforestation?
  • Does the financial institution have restrictions on lending to fossil fuel companies or other businesses that contribute to climate change?
  • Does the organization belong to trade associations that advocate for fossil fuels?
  • What is its disclosure policy?

'Nobody’s asked about it before' 

For now, Seventh Generation is reporting on these emissions and encouraging its treasury team to ask questions about how Unilever’s cash can be used in ways that support the company’s emissions targets. 

The hope is that the parent company will also begin similar disclosure, but Unilever hasn’t committed to doing so yet, Orgain said. One aspiration: To use Unilever’s influence to encourage more financial institutions to offer services that ensure corporate cash is used for investments that align with their ESG values. These options don’t exist today at scale.

"You don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to ask the questions," said Paul Moinester, founder and executive director of Topo Finance. "Just demonstrating the demand that you want this, that you care about this" is important, he said. "Part of the reason the solutions don’t exist is because nobody’s asked about it before."

[Supercharge your impact alongside other visionaries, experts and innovators leading the way to a regenerative future at VERGE 24, Oct. 29-31, San Jose.]

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