Better Banking: Reflections on the Triodos UK Annual Meeting

Triodos

When you hear the word “bank”, what’s the first thought that pops into your head? Crisis or scandal? Unethical or heartless? Perhaps something more sinister? The banking industry isn’t usually positively associated with social values. However, it doesn’t need to be that way: change is often led by innovators willing to challenge the status quo.

On Saturday, I attended the Annual Meeting of Triodos Bank’s* UK operations in Bristol. It was refreshing and enlightening to learn more about a financial institution set up with human values at its core. A common thread throughout the day was the combining of people, planet and prosperity – issues not normally associated with the profit-focused banking industry.

I couldn’t help but think that this was a glimpse of the future of finance. Or rather, maybe it’s a return to the original purpose of finance and banking: to enable humans to create a greater shared prosperity.

It’s not often that a bank opens its doors at their annual meeting to the public, but Triodos Bank are not your typical bank. The group was founded in the Netherlands in 1980 and the meeting in Bristol marked 20 years for the firm’s UK operations. I’ve previously blogged about Triodos Bank’s activities in providing finance for fair trade producers, but their activities extend to other areas including savings, personal investments and other forms of sustainable banking.

This was a great opportunity to learn more about the organisation, understand their philosophy and activities, while also gaining greater insight into the impact of their operations.

Financing the real economy

A common theme of the various presentations and discussions throughout the day was around the role of banks as organisations within society. For Triodos, their mission reaches further than Google’s “don’t be evil” by being more ambitious in using financial capital to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Rebecca Pritchard (Head of Business Banking) highlighted that when assessing their loan applicants, Triodos start with the human and qualitative aspects to understand the motivation and impact that the loan is likely to have. In contrast to traditional banks, Triodos don’t have a CSR department which acts to offset unsavoury behaviours elsewhere in the organisation. On the contrary, Ms Pritchard stated that 100% of Triodos Bank’s activities were socially responsible as the human element is always at the core of their behaviours.

Money for good

Further, the group’s emphasis was on capital being more than just a financial concept, but more importantly being social and environmental in nature. In fact, over time, the social and environmental elements of projects being financed by the bank have become more interlinked, enabling the potential for all 3 forms of capital to flourish together.

An example of this triple impact was the community wind turbine on the Isle of Barra, which was financed by Triodos. In this case, the local community is able to generate renewable energy and providing income which can then be used on community development projects.

Similarly, Marcos Eguiguren from the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV), a coalition of 28 values-based banks similar to Triodos, discussed how their partner bank in El Salvador provided micro finance loans for house building while also advising on how to build more sustainably and at lower cost. He stated how the goal of the GABV is to do good things and ensure they are done in the right way. This includes a focus on banking activities that impact the “real” socially-related economy, instead of the financialised and leveraged risk-seeking culture which has tended to dominate banking behaviour.

“Obama in Denmark”

Much attention was placed on the future of the financial system and the role of banks within the economic infrastructure. Nick Robins from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) talked about how different countries were changing their policies so that finance could be more aligned with environmental impact. Interestingly, initiatives in developing countries appear to be much more advanced than in developed countries. Examples of this included China’s aims of requiring environmental stress tests of banks’ loan books and how Brazil’s stock exchange (Bovespa) has more stringent environmental disclosure requirements than the London Stock Exchange.

Comments and questions from the audience also centred on the need for banks to improve their culture and values. By changing the mindset and governance of bank managers, boards and their shareholders to appreciate social and environmental factors, banking could regain the trust of their customers. This would require a removal of incentives for bad behaviour (including the short term bonus culture) while encouraging activities that related more to the real economy. A further suggestion was for shareholders to band together to change the articles of association of the big banks to include sustainability at its core.

Turning back to the focus on Triodos Bank’s operations, James Vaccaro (Head of Corporate Strategy) presented a range of future scenarios that the organisation would need to prepare for. These included disruptive demographic shifts (higher inequality, ageing populations), the future role of government (big or small?) and the potential for a small number of large corporations to dominate the financial and social landscape (“Amazoogle”).

Of these, potentially the most desirable was the “Yes we can” scenario (also known as “Obama in Denmark”) where a stronger civil society could work together with government to produce desirable social, environmental and economic outcomes. Implicit in this is that banks are part of civil society so there is a strong role for financial institutions to have a positive impact. Regardless, it’s great to see Triodos thinking about these future scenarios and the way in which they will need to adapt their organisation in each.

At the end of the day their philosophy is to connect with people, learn about the challenges they are trying to overcome and then partner in determining the best way to solve those problems through capital.

Focus on the human

In all, the talks and discussions throughout the meeting were enlightening. I was particularly impressed by the breadth of topics covered ranging from social impact bonds to the impact of disruptive technology, from carbon disclosure to woodland conservation. And yes, somewhere in the mix was mention of the bank’s impressive growth and financial performance.

What impressed me the most was the focus on the human. Too often in the recent past, the direct impact of finance on humans has been left out of the story. How has interest rate rigging by major banks been to the detriment of the end investors in pension funds? How have aggressive bank foreclosures impacted people’s lives? The disconnect between the financial system and the people it should serve seems to be very distinct.

The recent scandalous behaviour of banks has provided a lot to be cynical about. The knowledge that banks like Triodos and their peers exist provides good reasons to be optimistic about the future. So a warm congratulations to Triodos for 20 years in the UK, may the next 20 years see your innovative behaviours become the norm!

*Important disclaimer: As at the time of this post, the author has no direct financial nor personal connection to Triodos Bank or their related entities. Where details of investment products or schemes are referenced, the author is not making an investment recommendation. Please note the relevant terms and conditions for this organisation, available here.

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Better Banking: Reflections on the Triodos UK Annual Meeting

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