GreenChoice Bank (our February green-biz interview)
When you make a deposit with your bank, your money doesn’t just sit there. The bank invests your money as they see fit, primarily by making loans, but the decisions on how to invest your money, with whom, and for what purpose, are made by each bank.
“GreenChoice Bank invests its customers’ deposits back into the local and sustainable business community, to support entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and to fund sustainable construction projects,” says Steve Sherman, chief operating officer of GreenChoice Bank. GreenChoice Bank is one of many community banking options that can help you steer your money toward projects you believe in.
We asked Steve to tell us more about GreenChioce’s LEED-certified buildings, 100-percent recycled debit cards, and how a Bank-of-America-takeover inspired his move toward a greener career choice…
Green America: What does your business do?
Steve Sherman: GreenChoice Bank offers a fresh and sustainably-minded approach to banking, which benefits our customers, environment, communities and planet. We offer a full range of financial products and services, from personal checking and savings accounts to loans and business accounts. What’s different about GreenChoice Bank is that we’re conscious about more than your money.
We first opened our doors as GreenChoice Bank in February 2011, with Chicagoland locations in Cicero and Lockport. In August 2011, GreenChoice Bank opened its flagship location at the Green Exchange – a building designed to be Chicago’s epicenter of sustainable commerce. With our Green Exchange headquarters, GreenChoice Bank is anticipated to be the first LEED Platinum community bank location in the Midwest, and one of only a few in the country. We’ve been a member of Green America since 2009, when we exhibited at Green Festival Chicago during our startup phase.
What makes GreenChoice Bank a green bank?
Steve: GreenChoice Bank’s sustainable mission guides every aspect of our organization, structure, products and processes. We offer incentives that reward our customers for making “green” choices with how they bank and invest their money, and we treat our customers, community and environment with respect. Prior to our launch, we retooled our locations and operations to minimize our environmental footprint. Sustainable features at our locations include reclaimed wood from a turkey coop, re-used and repurposed materials, non-VOC paints and locally-sourced, recycled-content materials in countertops, wall systems and flooring.
We also try to be innovative relative to a traditional bank. We are trying to find ways to turn traditionally paper-based processes to digital ones, like our efforts to offer a paperless mortgage. Through innovative product sourcing and vendor partnerships, we’ve been able to offer debit cards with a 100-percent recycled plastic core. In our branch parking lots, we’ve installed the first electric car stations to go live in the towns of Cicero and Lockport. Of course, we purchase responsibly-sourced and manufactured products, from our FSC-certified and sustainably printed statement paper and necessary brochures, to the Fair Trade coffee in our break rooms.
What motivated you to start GreenChoice Bank?
Steve: GreenChoice Bank was founded by an experienced team of local bankers that saw a void in the financial services industry. Banks had drifted away from their true responsibility to the community, which we believe should be investing in the local economy and treating customers as people and not just account numbers. There was a growing need for a better relationship between banks, the public they serve, and their collective impact on the planet. I was working at LaSalle Bank, a pillar of the Chicago banking community, when it was acquired by Bank of America in 2007, and I knew that was not the place for me. I wanted to do something more socially responsible for my next professional step and that’s when our founding team came up with the idea for GreenChoice Bank.
We wanted a name that explicitly communicated our promise to be a different kind of bank. There was a lot of conversation about whether the term “green” would be meaningful several years from now as sustainability becomes the norm and not the exception – would it be the equivalent of adding dot-com to your name ten years ago? But we still found it to be an impactful and attention-getting word, particularly as we establish our brand. It took a few iterations based on URL and trademark availability, but we settled on GreenChoice Bank – part of our message is to empower others to make an active choice in their banking relationship by partnering with us.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Steve: In the slow-moving banking industry, trying to be different is difficult. For example, it took a long time for us to find the right partner for recycled paper checks. When we first started asking the question a few years ago, we were met with blank stares. But it is absolutely worth the extra effort to stay true to our brand, and we hope that asking these questions of our suppliers will help bring about broader change in the industry.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Steve: One of my proudest moments was when we finally opened our flagship location at the Green Exchange building in August 2011. Both GreenChoice Bank and the Green Exchange project had seen a lot of curveballs during the economic downturn, but we both persevered. I have no doubt that the mission component to our business is the reason both our projects are succeeding. It was a really emotional moment to cut that ribbon on opening day with people who believe in us and who have supported us at various stages in our development.
It’s also fulfilling to invest back into the community and leverage customer deposits with loans for sustainable and green projects that are good for everyone. In some cases, GreenChoice Bank might be able to get a tricky deal done because we understand sustainability and LEED projects and can more effectively or creatively structure a loan in ways big money center banks can’t.
Any examples of green financing projects you’re particularly proud of?
Steve: Yes, we partnered with another tenant of the Green Exchange, Greenhouse Loft, to help finance the buildout of their space here in the building. We are particularly excited about this loan because their space is a shining example of the benefits of the Green Exchange community – not only did we do the financing, but another tenant, 2 point perspective designed both our space and Greenhouse Loft’s space.
In addition to our corporate clients, we love working with individuals who are looking to make a difference with their own home. We also enjoy working with homeowners who are leading by example in the energy-efficient construction or rehab of their residences. We provided financing for the first prefabricated home to be permitted and built within the City of Chicago (expected to achieve LEED Platinum), and for a new home being constructed by a family who are building their dream green-home in the suburbs of Chicago. Fortunately for us, not many banks are interested in doing these kinds of loans. But for us a project that helps individuals realize their dreams, reduce their impact on the environment, and provide inspiration to others who may choose to do the same is a no-brainer.
What’s the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Steve: The volume of new accounts we’re getting from sustainably-minded businesses and organizations has been great to see. We had a new customer come 25 miles to open an account with us! It is proof of our concept and an indication that the green economy is growing. Practicing sustainability is a necessary, desirable and responsible behavior that is quickly moving from trend status to an integrated part of everyday life. We expect to continue seeing relatively strong growth. There is a strong level of customer interest in banking people can feel good about. We are empowered by the trust customers place in us. There are a lot of great loans to be made out there, and not a lot of banks are fulfilling their responsibility to lend to the community.
What is your next green step for GreenChoice Bank?
Steve: We’re always striving to do more. I get excited about finding innovative ways to use technology that supports our mission. But the most exciting things we see are the innovative ways our customers are embracing sustainability and social responsibility, such as building affordable green housing or manufacturing better products for energy efficiency. Being able to find ways to support them with their credit or other banking needs is something we’re proud of. Helping and inspiring other businesses and our customers to do their best to achieve sustainability – that’s good for everyone.
What green product can you not live without?
Steve: I’m going to give a shout out on behalf of my wife, who is obsessed with Sodastream. She drinks sparkling water like it’s going out of style, but we both balked at the cost and the idea of buying bottles and bottles of sparkling water. Now, we just use good old-fashioned Chicago tap water and our reusable Sodastream bottles. It’s a great all-around idea!