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How Hugging The Earth Can Sometimes Hug You Right Back

Let’s face it. Some credit union CEOs just produce a lot of gas. Hot air. Bluster. Bravado. But mostly, gas. They’re not alone. Their management teams and their boards are, well, gassy, too. Indeed, their entire credit union is one big gas bag.

One CEO and credit union have been trying to do something about all that gas, and this being Earth Week, it’s a good time to check in on what they’re up to. Dave Mowat, the former CEO at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (better known as VanCity), announced in 2006 that he had become the first “Zero CO2 CEO when he went carbon neutral.” Since then, the credit union has only increased is eco-awareness, and to good results.

South of the border it’s been a little more neutral-neutral. It’s worth noting that in the two years since VanCity made its announcement there has been a significant increase in the U.S. of environmental issues and the amount of energy consumed by–and wasted–by homes and business. But when it comes to U.S.-based credit unions, the reaction has been little more than the aforementioned gas. Yes, some credit unions have announced they are recycling more, others have talked of the benefits of going all electronic and becoming paperless, but for most American credit unions becoming eco-sensitive has consisted of offering auto loan rate reductions on hybrid vehicles.

In the time you’ve been reading this column gas has likely risen another dime a gallon, and it’s the price at the pump that is fueling interest in all things environmental (is there a more brilliant brand positioning, by the way, than that of oil giant BP, whose advertising and logo all but flat-out state that burning gasoline is actually good for the environment?). The issue is in the media on a near daily basis and it’s affecting member/consumer behavior and choices.

What makes VanCity so different is that it has seen the solar-powered light where nearly all other credit unions remain in the dark. For most credit unions and their CEOs on this Earth Day 2008, environmental awareness is not viewed as a connection to membership, but instead as good public relations and maybe a way to save a buck on the bottom line. What VanCity offers is a lesson in how being carbon-neutral can be very member-positive.

VanCity knows its membership and its market, and being “green” is just another example of how it integrates with both. True, the residents of what is the prettiest natural setting for any city in North America are a bit more tree-huggerish than most cities, but there are plenty of places in the U.S. where being green has become much more than a fringe issue. It’s no longer just about cleaning up the local stream, it’s mainstream, and credit unions are running the risk of being beaten to the recycling bin by banks.

If you visit the credit union’s website at www.vancity.com you can read a fair bit more about its green initiatives, its Clean Air Auto Loan, its Bright Ideas home loans, its financing for green energy alternatives, its energy audits, its investment in a local building project called Dockside Green. Although he’s no longer with the credit union, former CEO Mowat talks about his commitment to the planet, including having gone through the “Inconvenient Truth” training from former VP Al Gore (for info on that go to theclimateproject.org).

On its website, VanCity asks, “Why do individuals, businesses and not-for-profit organizations choose Vancity over other financial institutions? It all starts with Shared Success. VanCity’s purpose is to work with people and communities to help them thrive and prosper.” VanCity recognizes that the Vancouver community believes that the planet must thrive and prosper for them to also do so, as well. On its site it outlines the many unique ways it works with its community, including its carbon offset program and its goal to be carbon neutral by 2010. The credit union reports it reduced its energy consumption by 50% per employee and $2 million since the early 1990s.

VanCity also asks on its site, “What makes VanCity so different?” If you’ve read all of the above, answered “plenty” and concluded you could never sell yourself much less your board on becoming such a planet-hugger, here’s something you do have in common with VanCity: it likes to grow. In 2007, VanCity grew 14.77% to $14.1 billion (no longer can we joke about those being Canadian dollars). That’s solid growth on any side of the border, and it results from having connected with an issue that resonates with more and more consumers.

So this Earth Day get ready to go green. Or put it off, and turn green with envy.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com. (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com http://www.sourcemedia.com

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