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A more co-operative form of banking

21 October 2019

Later this month, we will be supporting the 2019 Ethical Consumer Conference, and sharing thoughts on how we can work together to tackle climate change. Maria Cearns, Managing Director of Current Accounts and Savings, will be speaking at the event about how The Bank is addressing the current climate crisis and its environmental impact.

Ahead of the conference, Maria was interviewed by Ethical Consumer. She discussed The Bank’s ethical and environmental policy, as well as how the banking sector can address the climate emergency. Read the interview below.

Interview from Ethical Consumer with Maria Cearns

Ethical Consumer: How have you seen ethics develop over your time at The Co-operative Bank?

Maria Cairns: I have been at The Bank for 17 years and it’s been fascinating to see how our values and ethics have evolved since the launch of the Ethical Policy in 1992. At that time, business ethics and sustainability were seen as peripheral to corporate activity but that’s not the case today, as most businesses are acknowledging the need to actively evaluate and manage their social and environmental impacts.

The Co-operative Bank’s values and ethics have developed over this time and a key aspect for us has been how we, together with our customers, have consistently identified issues of concern long before any actual change was made to rules and regulations, or even laws to address them. For instance, one of the first statements in our Ethical Policy was against the animal testing of cosmetic products, which has now been banned from sale in the EU since 2013.

We want to continue to be forward looking and ensure our ethical focus is relevant, and identifying and working to tackle issues as they arise. Our most recent review in 2015 extended the Ethical Policy beyond who we do, and don’t, bank to include four new pillars around products and services, ethical business, ethical workplace and culture, and campaigning, as well as incorporating our values and ethics into our Articles of Association.

EC: The problems at The Bank have been well documented, do you now feel that the organisation is on the front foot in terms of finances and safeguarding The Bank’s ethical stance?

MC: Despite the well-documented issues that we have faced and dealt with in recent years, the values and ethics of the co-operative movement remain as integral to how we operate as a business as they always have been.

In recent years, there has been a real resurgence among colleagues in The Bank to embrace the values and ethics in how we deal with our customers every day. New charity partnerships have been formed with youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint, and domestic abuse charity, Refuge, and we’re strengthening the way we work with all of our charity partners to make a difference.

The Bank is in a much stronger place now and we are focused on how we differentiate ourselves in the market and continue to offer ethical banking, products and services to our customers and those looking for an ethical bank for their needs.  

EC: What do you think is the most important plank of the Bank’s ethical commitments?

MC: The decision to base the Ethical Policy on a customer mandate and allowing customers to have their say in who we do, and don’t, bank with is the mainstay of our Policy and really sets us apart from other banks. Customers consistently tell us that having their ethical concerns reflected in the Policy is hugely important to them and is one of the main reasons they bank with us.

Without their support, it would be impossible to achieve our ambitions to be among the leading ethical businesses in the UK. I’d like to thank them for their loyalty in sticking by The Bank during the difficulties we experienced a few years ago.

EC: What do you think the biggest success has been in terms of your environmental / Ethical Policy?

MC: I’m very proud of what The Bank has achieved, in particular our hard hitting campaigns where, in partnership with our customers, we’ve been unafraid to take a stand on difficult issues we know they care about often long before they enter the mainstream. Whether that’s the campaigning on the dangers of unexploded cluster bombs, better regulation of harmful chemicals or the time when Co-operative Bank customers wrote to every MP in the country to lobby for a strong Climate Change Bill.

More recently, we partnered with the UK domestic abuse charity, Refuge, for our ‘My Money, My Life’ campaign; highlighting the extent of financial abuse in intimate partner relationships in the UK. This has led to the launch, last year, of an industry-wide ‘Financial Abuse Code of Practice’ to help those affected by financial abuse. For me personally, as a member of Amnesty International, I’m incredibly excited by our current 2019 campaign to help, develop and train the next generation of human rights defenders through our support of Amnesty International UK’s Rise Up programme

EC: Do you think the sector as a whole is moving quickly enough to fight the climate crisis? What more needs to be done in the banking sector? What are the barriers to a quicker transition to a low carbon economy with regard to banking?

MC: The role of finance is essential to addressing the climate emergency and meeting the Paris Climate Agreement and it is important to recognise the progress that has been made in recent years.

It’s just over a decade since the ground breaking Climate Change Act set UK targets for reductions in CO2 emissions (which our customers campaigned for) and, in that time, we’ve seen further developments such as the growth in ethical investments and the emergence of the green bonds market. Just this month, UK pensions regulations came into effect requiring pension funds to factor Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations, including climate change, into their investment decisions.

But there is lots still to do and time is running out. There remains a green finance deficit. Specifically, banks continue to finance the extraction of fossil fuels on a massive scale, which is clearly contradictory to the transition to a low carbon economy. It’s why, since 1998, The Bank has declined finance for the extraction of fossil fuels.

It’s for all of us, governments, businesses as well as individual consumers to take action to address the climate emergency. 

EC: Why did you choose to support the Ethical Consumer conference?

MC: The ongoing success of our approach to ethical banking relies on the support of ethically motivated customers and this conference is an opportunity to engage with like-minded consumers, campaigners and businesses to share learnings and move forward.

It’s great for us to be able to show our support for Ethical Consumer. Since we launched our Ethical Policy, shortly after Ethical Consumer itself was founded, Ethical Consumer has played a key role in raising awareness, campaigning and spreading the knowledge and understanding of important issues. Through their rigorous company ratings, getting behind the greenwash and corporate spin, they assess businesses’ true social and environmental impacts. We value our Ethical Consumer ranking as a ‘recommended buy’.

EC: Can you outline what you’ll be saying at the conference?

MC: I’m really looking forward to sharing The Bank’s experience of how a modern bank can play its part in addressing climate change, in particular, showcasing how we address our environmental impacts.  

Thank you to Ethical Consumer for conducting this interview, and for their continued work to raise awareness of social and environmental causes. We’re proud to be sponsoring this year’s Ethical Consumer Conference, and e look forward to seeing you all there!

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