Union Bank
Susan Miller
Senior Vice President & Environmental Officer
"Those of us in the corporate social responsibility arena can accomplish much more when we work together--leveraging our diverse expertise and perspectives--than we can when we work alone."

When most of us think of organizations that need to focus on conservation and helping the environment, we tend to think of manufacturers . . . organizations that produce large amounts of waste as they churn out goods. Explain how Union Bank is helping the environment even though, as a bank, it is not producing the amount of waste that other organizations produce.

It’s true that, as a bank, we don’t have the same environmental footprint or supply-chain issues you might find with a major manufacturer or industrial company. But conservation and sustainability are still incredibly relevant and important values to us—and central to the bank’s overall commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Union Bank has more than 11,000 employees and operates 420 branches throughout California and in six other states. We work hard to develop innovative ways to minimize our impact in terms of paper use, energy consumption, emissions, etc. Amongour branches in California, 26 earned ENERGY STAR certification last year from the Environmental Protection Agency and we recently introduced a paperless invoicing program that prevented several metric tons of paper from entering the waste stream—just two examples.

Union Bank also has a major impact on environmental sustainability through our core financial business. Last year, we provided U.S. $5.6 billion in financing for a wide variety of sustainable businesses, including leading innovators in alternative energy, greener waste management, and sustainable agricultural businesses. Plus, our employees volunteer generously on behalf of a large number of environmental causes, which we also support financially through the Union Bank Foundation.

Even though our bank doesn’t have a manufacturing plant or a fleet of trucks, we can still do a great deal to make a positive difference in terms of environmental stewardship.

This year’s Best Global Green Brands report is focused on “the power of participation.” Keeping that theme in mind, how has Union Bank allowed its key stakeholders to participate in its CSR efforts? Specifically, how does Union Bank activate its own workforce? How is participation measured?

Union Bank also embraces “the power of participation.” One of our most important jobs in the CSR department is to foster participation and partnerships among our many stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, industry groups, and community members. We listen to these audiences closely through a variety of means, including social media, public opinion surveys, advertising, and good old-fashioned personal relationships. We’re also in the process of formulating a new Community Service Action Plan (CSAP), which details our specific goals and commitments in terms of community reinvestment. (Our total investment in community-serving loans and activities totaled US$7.7 billion last year). The process of formulating our new plan will involve a great deal of interaction with core community groups and other stakeholders throughout the bank’s geographical footprint.

One of the things we’re proudest of at Union Bank is the participation of our own workforce in our many CSR activities. Last year, our team members contributed a record 78,081 hours of volunteer time, on behalf of a wide variety of community initiatives, including public health, education, youth mentoring, community redevelopment, and environmental stewardship. Among our senior leadership, 285 Union Bank officers volunteer on the boards of 478 nonprofit organizations—donating pro bono time that we value at US$2.9 million. Union Bank’s intranet system offers an online tool that alerts employees to various volunteer opportunities and helps them accurately track how much time they’ve contributed.

A particular focus of our volunteer efforts is promoting financial literacy. Put simply, we believe that being successful in today’s world requires a solid grasp of the fundamentals of banking, saving and investing to accomplish goals such as buying a home, saving for college or planning for retirement. We have strong partnerships with Operation HOPE, Junior Achievement, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Clubs and other groups that allow us to harness the financial expertise within our business for the benefit of our communities, particularly young people.

As a financial institution, Union Bank targets the bulk of our philanthropy to four strategic areas: community economic development, affordable housing, education and the environment. These categories are closely aligned with our core businesses.

The Union Bank Foundation maintains several Local Area Committees whose members are very familiar with the needs of their respective communities. These committees evaluate many of the grant requests the bank receives. Through our various philanthropic programs, we donate two percent of our after-tax profits each year—a level of philanthropy we’re proud of. Union Bank also has an employee matching program, matching eligible contributions each year up to US$2,500 per employee.

Union Bank is committed to working with communities to create a solid foundation for the future. Can you explain this mission in greater detail? How does Union Bank effectively partner with members of the community to prompt positive change? How is the impact of Union Bank's support ascertained?

Union Bank’s commitment to CSR is grounded in the understanding that our business can be only as healthy and prosperous as the communities we serve. We’ve played a strong role in community-building since the start of our business in 1864. Leaders of Union Bank and our predecessor banks contributed to the creation of the first transcontinental railroad, the San Francisco cable cars and the famed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. CSR is an important part of our heritage and our DNA. We think this is a key reason why Union Bank was recently voted the nation’s No. 1 bank in terms of reputation by American Banker Magazine.

One of the most important ways we partner with communities is through our Community Advisory Board, an 11-member group of prominent, engaged citizens who reflect the diversity of our marketplace. We see this group as a “strategic consultancy” that provides us with valuable insight into the needs and priorities of the communities throughout our footprint. Many of our successful programs and initiatives have stemmed from the feedback provided by our Community Advisory Board.

Beyond simply pledging to support our communities, Union Bank makes a firm commitment to do so through our (CSAP). Under our current 10-year CSAP, Union Bank has agreed to invest at least 5.2 percent of our total annual assets in loans and activities related to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) through 2014.

While we realize you highly value all of your nonprofit/charitable partners, can you speak about just one and tell us what makes the partnership so strong? What has this nonprofit/charitable partner done right? What can other nonprofits/charitable organizations learn from what this partner has done well?

One initiative we’re especially excited about is our unique place-based initiative in Fresno, California, which involves a variety of close partners.

Fresno is a city of half a million people in California’s Central Valley that has great need, but also great promise. Since 2012, we have teamed with a range of nonprofits, community groups, and businesses, while also summoning the full breadth of resources within Union Bank in order to promote economic development in the city. We’re providing US$7.5 million a year for three years in the form of grants, loans, and other support geared toward improving economic competitiveness, expanding affordable housing, supporting environmental causes and other goals.

We’re working with organizations such as the Valley Small Business Development Cooperation, our partner in a novel Technical Resource Assistance Center; the Fresno Food Expo, which we sponsor in order to support the growers, winemakers and other producers from the area’s important agricultural community; and the Fresno Unified School District, our partner in operating a student-run school branch in a local high school. That program has been so successful that we opened two more student-run branches this year in Los Angeles using the same model.

This experience has been a meaningful reminder of how important a strong financial and economic base is to the overall health of a community. It also reinforces the fact that those of us in the CSR arena can accomplish much more when we work together, leveraging our diverse expertise and perspectives, than we can when we work alone.

How do you measure the success of Union Bank's programs/efforts overall? In other words, how are you able to determine that the various programs/efforts are bolstering the Union Bank brand in the right ways? What metrics do you find to be the most telling?

Community engagement is very important to Union Bank. We do a lot of listening to our partners and stakeholders, including through our Community Advisory Board.

Recently, we launched a new initiative with the University of San Diego (USD) to measure and quantify our total impact even more closely. Our partnership with the school’s Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research gives us clearer insight into the difference we’re truly making in communities. Based on USD’s analysis of our impact in 2011, we now know that, on the environmental front, our efforts led to 3,000 trees being planted, 2.5 million gallons of polluted water being treated, 3,100 tons of material being recycled, and 1,000 individuals trained in green jobs, resulting in 778 job placements. Understanding our impact in this kind of close, granular detail will allow us to continually refine and improve our community-building strategies and investments.

Which brands, in your opinion, are noteworthy Corporate Citizens? In other words, which brands inspire you and your colleagues?

A few businesses that come to mind are Google for its innovative green programs and strong employee benefits, AT&T for its environmental efforts (including recycling telephones and conserving water) as well as its “It Can Wait” campaign against texting while driving, and Kaiser Permanente for a variety of work with regard to energy efficiency, waste minimization, and paper reduction. I’m also impressed with the very strong work being done by Patagonia in a wide array of areas. Sustainability has been part of Patagonia’s DNA from the very start.

susan miller