A lot of environmental types get squeamish when the talk turns to money and finance. They believe that most notions of capitalism fly in the face of sustainability, and vice versa. Money is so unseemly, it seems.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. Over the past few years, we've seen most of the world's largest banks adopt the Equator Principles, reining in some of their more egregiously unsustainable practices, such as lending money for huge, Stalinesque dams and power plants all but destined to bankrupt developing nations. It hasn't ended such travesties, but it has slowed them down.
Perhaps more important, we've also seen the growth of new models of financial services aimed steering capital toward beneficial uses. A few big banks have discovered this emerging market, such as the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, which established a business unit last year to provide financing for customers in environmental businesses. But big banks, as a rule, have shunned eco-entrepreneurs. Or, at least, they've done little to cater to their special needs.
Which is why I'm excited about New Resource Bank, a recently launched commercial bank based in San Francisco. NRB is one of a small number of community banks focusing on the needs of sustainably-minded businesses.
The bank's origins go back about two and a half years, when Peter Liu, the bank's founder and vice chairman, found himself among a group of individuals being asked by California Treasurer Phil Angelides to help implement the state's Green Wave initiative, which called on the state's two large public pension funds -- the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) -- to invest $1.5 billion in clean technologies and environmentally responsible companies.
Liu, whose career path includes executive positions at Chase Manhattan Bank and Credit Suisse First Boston as well as a clean-tech advisor to CalPERS, saw an opportunity. While venture capitalist and pension funds were investing untold millions in clean and green technologies, there was little action from banks, the most conservative end of the capital chain. "Oftentimes there are boxes that banks put things in, and they haven't created a box for 'organic' or 'renewable,' where they can understand the credit needs of these businesses," Liu recently told me.
For example, he explained, a developer of small local renewable energy projects might have trouble getting funding from conventional banks, or even local community banks. "They may understand real estate, but they don't understand that there are other things that can have cash flow, like energy projects," says Liu. "These can have a similar credit profile as real estate, so if a banker took the time to understand the security and soundness of the project, it's more likely to get financed than comparing it to land or a house or apartment." The same is true for producers of organic meat and produce, which cost more to produce but which garner higher prices in the marketplace. Bankers may miss the big picture -- seeing only the higher-cost side of the equation and basing their calculations accordingly.
Liu pulled together a management team of banking and sustainability professionals, as well as an all-star roster of founding organizers and investors, to create a bank that would cater to such businesses. He rounded it out with more than 200 smaller investors -- including such green luminaries as Interface chairman Ray Anderson, sustainability wine maven Paul Dolan, and former Organic Trade Association president Bill Wolf. (I am a minor investor as well as a member of the bank's advisory board.)
Among the bank's models is Triodos Bank, a European financial institution with branches in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, and the U.K. According to Triodos' mission statement:
Triodos Bank finances companies, institutions, and projects that add cultural value and benefit people and the environment, with the support of depositors and investors who want to encourage the development of socially responsible and innovative business.
"We spent a lot of time talking to the founders of Triodos," says Liu. "They had a compelling concept -- that values could be a differentiating brand in terms of selling banking services. The importance of the Triodos business model is that they can attract deposits broadly by focusing lending on certain things about which people share their values." Liu believes that New Resource Bank will similarly succeed by attracting depositors who want to see their money used for more sustainable purposes.
Time will tell, of course, but Liu and his colleagues are banking on the rising interest among consumers and businesses in products and services with green values. Banking in particular has been in need of some fresh ideas given the growing industry consolidation, with a handful of big banks dominating the scene and standardizing their services -- often leaving behind those needing tailor-made services.
New Resource Bank's official opening is November 14 (when the full complement of online banking services will debut), but last week at the Solar Power 2006 conference in San Jose, Calif., Liu announced the bank's first green financial product: a partnership with solar panel maker SunPower Corp. that will allow customers to more easily finance residential solar energy installations. (Robert Lorenzini, a co-founder of SunPower, is an investor in the bank.) Liu believes the customized home-equity lending, combined with tax credits, can make solar affordable to many California residents for whom it is currently out of reach.
It's a promising start for a young bank, and a ray of hope that at least some in the financial community are ready, willing, and able to help grow the next generation of sustainable businesses.