Sustainability: A Necessarily Collaborative Effort

The Sustainable MBA

Sustainability: A Necessarily Collaborative Effort

While on my way to a breakout session at the U.N. Environment Program Finance Initiative Global Roundtable last October, I happened upon three security guards -- an African, an Italian, and a Brit -- playing chess in a passageway. As the Brit and the Italian turned the timer between each move, the African gentleman moved between the two players, offering equal counsel to both colleagues. The breakout session itself was intellectually stimulating; but perhaps it was this small moment outside that best illustrated one of the key lessons of the conference: Sustainable initiatives require cooperation not only across public and private sectors but across hemispheres as well.

In business, such collaboration is often missing. The UNEP FI Roundtable offered a rare opportunity to assess the shared social, environmental, and financial risks corporations face in today's globalized world.

This year's Roundtable highlighted the role of institutional investors and the asset management community. One of its breakout stars was mecu -- an Australian member-owned financial cooperative serving 104,000 domestic clients through personal banking, insurance and financial planning. As a lending institution, mecu's major impacts are the result of the activities it supports through its product and services. As a cooperative, the company is beholden to a membership that influences the direction and scope of mecu's offerings and has helped evolve one of its most innovative environmental initiatives -- the goGreen Car Loan.

Transportation is the single largest source of human-made greenhouse gases. To help reduce the environmental impact of automobiles, mecu has partnered with the environmental non-profit organization Greenfleet to offset 100% of the greenhouse gas emissions a car produces. Each year, for the life of the goGreen Car Loan, mecu plants and maintains 17 native trees in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin. The gesture is more than symbolic: the Murray river system supports 40% of the country’s agricultural production (amounting to $7.5 billion annually), drains one-seventh of the Australian landmass, provides water to over 1 million residents, and helps generate electricity in multiple territories. As the trees grow, they absorb an average of 4.3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions (one of the greenhouse gasses cars produce), improve water quality, and create habitats for endangered species.

Although Australia does not offer tax incentives for consumers who purchase environmentally friendly cars, mecu rewards customers who opt for green vehicles with a significantly lower interest rate (7.49% APR) than those who purchase gas guzzlers (12.75% APR). Over 1,300 loans have been issued at a value of approximately $15 million USD, representing 2.4% of mecu’s loan portfolio. The loans have resulted in the planting of over 31,500 trees, which will absorb 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

During the Roundtable discussion, Damien Walsh (Group Manager of Corporate Services and Head of Sustainability, mecu) stated programs such as goGreen have attracted "a higher value, more educated customer base." He attributed mecu’s deposit and loan growth "directly to sustainability initiatives."

When the conversation opened up to all participants, mecu was, first, lauded for its creative approach to mitigating climate change, and then challenged to consider the social impacts of its transportation agenda. Walsh became animated as he and the audience member discussed the social justice challenges related to transportation, including limited access to affordable transportation reinforcing the cycle of poverty by blocking access to more lucrative jobs. The brief brainstorm into transportation options that support the environment and increase access to opportunities (professional and otherwise) ended with Walsh’s articulated commitment to developing a social justice agenda within the mecu transportation initiative.

This was one of many hopeful conversations during the UNEP FI Roundtable. It was a "chess moment" where institutions that had traditionally been competitors or siloed in different sectors came together and demonstrated that, despite all the challenges of living in a global economy, we have the power to collaborate on multiple levels. Bringing together sustainable development and capital markets, corporations and non-profits, shareholders and stakeholders, and ideas from the north and south, the UNEP FI Roundtable demonstrated that the common challenges we face can be solved in ways that increase opportunities for all, and fortify our journey towards a sustainable future.

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and a graduate of the Presidio School of Management. She is the host/ writer of Ethical Markets, the first national program reporting on sustainable business practices and corporate social responsibility, created by futurist Hazel Henderson and currently airing on PBS. Her musings on sustainable business and development can be found online.