Sustainability Isn’t Solely About the Environment

woman with greens in shopping bag and a water bottle
Miles Hoffman Photo
Senior Sustainability Specialist
Premier Members Credit Union

5 minutes

It’s also about social and financial factors, being compliant, and connecting with members.

Incorporating sustainability into business culture and operations is nothing new. Organizations have been weaving in small-scale solutions for decades. “Think before you print” taglines popped up in the early 2000s. I can remember washing solar panels on top of my parents’ bakery in San Francisco in 1989. Now, some cities in which we operate require zero waste systems (which create separate landfill, recycling and composting streams) and waste reduction training for employees.

Much like any other business strategy, with sustainability, you must constantly learn, adapt and grow. And all studies point to consumers and potential new employees demanding more—more purpose, more positive impact and more giving from the businesses they engage with and work for.

Premier Members Credit Union hired its first sustainability specialist in 2018, and when I took over in 2019, many impact projects had already begun. A 10kW solar array was installed on our main branch in Boulder. We rolled out zero waste stations at all locations and at our corporate office. Employees were trained on waste diversion, and we were off and running.

We’ve run member and employee electronics recycling events, diverting over 20,000 pounds from the landfill since 2020. We’ve procured over 350,000 kWh of renewable energy through community solar programs and are doubling our investment in this area. We’ve reduced our water use by nearly 25% through rain sensors, smart watering schedules and reducing our turf areas, opting for more xeriscaping (no irrigation landscaping) at new branches. We have a massive lighting project that will be executed by the end of the year that will save us nearly 230,000 kWh each year.

And yet these operational opportunities are the “quick wins.” It’s easy to show the business case for reducing resource use—particularly as utility costs will only continue to rise. What’s truly exciting is developing new products and services for members that utilize our greatest asset—financial capital—to help them reduce their own carbon footprints through energy efficiency upgrades and launching purpose driven businesses. This is the direction we’re headed.

Social, Financial and Communications Considerations

Sustainability, of course, is not limited to the environmental realm. At Premier Members, we also address both the social and financial aspects of a sustainability program. We offer a variety of community outreach opportunities to our employees to spend time giving back to our communities. Premier Members pays employees for volunteering and time away from the day job to participate. Our focus is on financial literacy, education and basic needs. We use that lens to choose non-profit partners for community outreach. Of course, we also do community outreach with our sustainability partners like Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, an agrivoltaics community solar farm (elevated solar panels above traditional crops), where we source nearly 250,000 kWh of electricity annually to support our largest branch.

As with any sustainability program, it’s important to communicate both internally and externally, and highlight your successes. Premier Members was recognized at the silver level for the City of Louisville, City of Westminster, and twice in City of Longmont, for the Green Business Awards. Additionally, we received the City of Westminster’s inaugural sustainable business of the year award in 2020. Recently we launched our sustainability microsite with information dedicated to our sustainable practices, events, partners and suggestions to help our members move forward with environmental conservation in their own lives. This site will be ever-changing with new data and reports, blogs and articles focused on the Colorado front range and member engagement.

The Why of Sustainability

So why should financial institutions take up a robust sustainability program? The science tells us we must act now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been producing statistical models based on actual climate data and has projected the relative impacts for nearly 35 years. The group’s latest report details a shrinking window to change our path and a bleak outlook if we don’t act immediately.

Our communities continue to feel the effects—from drought and wildfires as we experienced here in Colorado in December 2021, to flooding, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Looking beyond the science, the Securities and Exchange Commissoin now requires publicly traded companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions along with their financial disclosures. Many states are passing new, energy-efficient building codes. In Colorado, the latest legislative session produced the third producer responsibility law in the country. This requires the producers of goods to pay for waste management of their outputs. The City of Denver just passed a pay-as-you-throw fee model to encourage people to compost and recycle more than they landfill.

And finally, stakeholders are demanding sustainable accountability. Investors, employees and members are all making purchasing decisions based on authentic action to combat climate change. This is particularly true of Gen Z and Millennials, and the generations to come will only increase this pressure.

No one organization can do this alone. We must find partners from all sectors to spread both awareness and positive impact. In addition, within our industries and amongst competitors, you need to find common ground. One of the early adopting credit unions focused on sustainability is the United Nations Federal Credit Union. It has been an incredible partner to us, and even developed the first consortium specifically for credit unions to share success stories and challenges and discuss ways to scale positive impact.

United in Sustainability launched in 2018, is a growing community that gathers quarterly and hosts an annual summit to discuss topics like responsible procurement, how to achieve climate neutrality, grow your diversity, equity and inclusion program, and create new green products and services for members that drive the clean energy economy.

Premier Members is proudly taking steps toward all aspects of sustainability. In addition to being at the forefront of the industry in sustainable business practices, the CU takes pride in giving back to the communities it serves, supporting a wide variety of partnerships with charitable and sustainable organizations like Community Foundation Boulder County, Eco Cycle, Impact on Education, Jack’s Solar Garden, United Way, Westminster Public Schools Foundation and others.

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At the time of writing, Miles Hoffman was senior sustainability specialist for $1.5 billion Premier Members Credit Union, Broomfield, Colorado.

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