Netherlands-based Triodos Bank, the world’s preeminent sustainability-oriented bank, is both an investor in and a model for New Resource Bank. So we jumped at the chance to ask a few questions of Triodos CEO and Chairman Peter Blom when he was in San Francisco recently visiting New Resource and meeting with a group of sustainability-oriented bankers.
Triodos Bank experienced healthy growth in the first half of 2011, despite the challenging economy. Why do you think that is?
In Europe there is a strong notion that we have to transform our way of living and our economy. People realize that it’s more about personal responsibility than government responsibility. The government’s more focused on dealing with the economic crisis.
There’s a great deal of awareness now about the role of banks, and that the choice you make has an impact. It’s become important for people to say, “I don’t believe in what my bank is doing,” and take responsibility for that and move their accounts.
In Spain we see hundreds of new customers every day, and we don’t advertise there. It’s a youth movement, spreading the word through social media. We’re seeing the same thing happening in Belgium and the Netherlands.
When I joined the bank in 1980 I felt that money was at the core of change. Of course people can change, but how you use money influences the direction of change.
You started and now chair the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. What’s your vision for that organization?
The idea is to have 50 to 100 members represented by bank leaders. (There are 14 members now, including New Resource Bank.) The first goal is to have an exchange of ideas. Most of these banks are one of a kind in their country, and it’s good to have an international network of peers.
There’s a growing need for capital for these banks, so we’re looking at how we can join forces to create a sustainable banking asset class—a fund that investors can put money into.
Another issue is, what does it mean to be banking on values? Can we share metrics? There’s a lot of talk about measuring the impact of investing, but we don’t have a set of metrics for banks. We want to develop a shared set of simple, meaningful impact measures.
We also want to build awareness that a new kind of banking exists, and can be an answer to many of the problems we have.
In the U.S. it’s still common for people to say that we have to choose between the economy and the environment—what’s your reaction to that?
The old thinking is that you can only be environmentally friendly if you have a healthy economy. I would say it’s the opposite—you can only have a healthy economy if you’re environmentally friendly. How people see sustainability is changing. It’s been a sort of ideology—you believe in sustainability or you don’t. I think it will become an economic principle. You see this happening with big companies. Philips, for example, has said that the only way they can continue is by operating sustainably.
There will be a tipping point, I’m quite sure. We don’t have to convince 100 percent of the people—we have to convince the 20 percent of people who are most influential.