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Has your bank been naughty or nice this year?

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With Christmas just days away and a new year around the corner, why not treat yourself to a brand new, ethical, sustainable, responsible and better bank account. With help from our friends at Move Your Money, here’s Blue & Green Tomorrow’s rundown of Santa’s naughty and nice banking list.

Since January, campaign group Move Your Money claims over half a million people in the UK have made the switch from high street banks to dedicated ethical alternatives – not least because of the scandals and crises that have continued to engulf the mainstream banking arena.

The thriving alternative sector – that can be typified by its transparency, its innovation, its personal customer service and its search for positive change – is growing at a rate of knots, and there are options suitable for everyone, whether it’s an ethical bank, building society, credit union or community development financial institutions(CDFI).

As we leave 2012 with banks being fined for laundering drug money and exposed for mis-selling, it is really time we all showed banks who is the boss of our money”, said Laura Willoughby, Move Your Money chief executive.

Do you have an account at a naughty bank? Watch our Christmas message and see if you can move your money in the new year.”

You heard her. Watch the video below and see if you can spot your bank being given a surprise – and perhaps unwelcome – Christmas gift by Santa.

Just in case you’re still unsure as to which camp your bank is in, we’ve compiled a couple of handy lists – or should we say, we’ve got hold of Santa’s official naughty and nice banking lists, and the North Pole has kindly allowed us to share it with our readers.

So without further ado, here goes.

Naughty list

– Barclays: It’s been a really bad year to be a Barclays customer. Not only did the bank find itself at the centre of the Libor rate-rigging scandal – for which it was subsequently fined £276m – but it also witnessed a shareholder revolt at its annual general meeting in April over its boardroom pay strategy, with a significant 26.9% rejecting Barclays’ executive remuneration package. It was pulled up for aggressive” tax avoidance in 2012 and was even recognised (or ribbed) in January at the Public Eye Awards for its “social and ecological offences” relating to food speculation.

– HSBC: HSBC’s inclusion on the naughty list was sealed when accusations of money laundering began surfacing. After an investigation by the US Senate, the bank was forced to pay £1.2 billion in penalties for channelling money for Mexican drug barons and Iranian criminals – the largest fine ever given to a bank. Blue & Green Tomorrow’s editor – a customer of HSBC since the age of seven – jumped ship for pastures new earlier this year, and wrote about his reasons for leaving recently (if it wasn’t already painfully obvious).

– Lloyds TSB: Lloyds Banking Group, the parent company of such banks as Lloyds TSB, Halifax and the Bank of Scotland, revealed a half year loss of £439m in July this year after being forced to increase the amount it had set aside for payment protection insurance (PPI) compensation by £700m to £4.27 billion overall. But for 4.8 million lucky Lloyds TSB customers, The Co-operative Bank struck a deal in July to buy 632 Lloyds TSB and Cheltenham and Gloucester branches in the UK, in what was described as the “biggest shake-up in high street banking in a generation”. We say bravo, Co-op, for ending those people’s misery without them having to lift a finger.

– Royal Bank of Scotland: Although it’s not been officially agreed yet, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is in line to receive the biggest Libor fine of all UK banks to date at £350m. It has also received continued criticism in the last 12 months for its funding of Canadian tar sands operations. This is on top of a £1.5 billion half year loss and a PPI compensation pot worth £1.7 billion. Phew; we’re worn out just writing this one.

– Natwest: The inclusion of Natwest on the naughty list centres mainly on its horrendous IT meltdown over the summer. Up to 12 million people were estimated to be unable to pay bills or withdraw money during one of the worst technical failures in banking history. The Financial Services Authority (FSA) subsequently ruled that the bank had to refund and compensate affected customers – and rightly so. Emma Fay, an English student and teacher from West Sussex, wrote about her motivations for ditching Natwest back in June.

Nice list

– Triodos Bank: Triodos is a pioneer in ethical banking. Its managing director Charles Middleton told Blue & Green Tomorrow how it had got through the global financial crisis unscathed because of its robust, resilient and sustainable business model. While the big banks are paying fines and compensation for various scandals and crises, Triodos reported a 51% surge in account applications around the time former Barclays chief Bob Diamond handed in his resignation. It announced last month that it was extending an investment offer after witnessing “unprecedented” interest from investors, who had already raised over £1.7m to fund the bank’s future growth. And it also reported a 36% growth in green lending in 2011, proving that banks can indeed be good and do good.

– Charity Bank: Rather fittingly, Charity Bank turned 10 years old right in the middle of National Ethical Investment Week this year. In that decade-long period, it has issued 1,006 loans, valued at a total of £165m, and supported project expenditure of £353m. This, in turn, is estimated to have improved the lives of some 3.5 million people across the UK. Its chairman George Blunden summed the bank up perfectly: “There are banks out there that are trying to use finance as a tool to make the world a better place. Charity Bank is one of those.”

– Reliance Bank: Reliance Bank typifies the small and vibrant banking community that wrongly gets overlooked in the UK. Set up over 100 years ago as The Salvation Army’s bank, it has grown sustainably over the years to the point where now 75% of its operating profits go towards the charity’s community work in the UK and overseas. Customers therefore know exactly how their money is being invested – something that is almost unheard of on the high street – and more to the point, can sleep easy knowing they’re making a positive difference.

– Unity Trust Bank: Unity Trust Bank is another institution that has been able to continue with business-as-usual, despite the global financial crisis. When we spoke with its managing director, Richard Wilcox, he outlined the bank’s distinctive standpoint in the market: “We have a unique understanding of [the] social economy because we’re part of it. It’s not like we’re an outsider looking in – we’re part of that economy.” How many mainstream banks can honestly say that? We’d bet none.

– The Co-operative Bank: Arguably the closest thing to a high street bank that the alternative banking sector has. The Co-operative Bank has gone from strength to strength in the last 12 months – revealing in July that it would be taking on an extra 4.8 million UK customers after acquiring over 600 Lloyds TSB and Cheltenham and Gloucester branches. It was also named European sustainable bank of the year at the FT/IFC Sustainable Finance Awards in June, and was our editor’s preferred destination when he left HSBC.

– Ecology Building Society: This one’s somewhat of a wildcard choice in the nice list, purely because it’s not technically a bank – but a building society. But we – ahem – Santa thought that it would be wrong and unfair to leave out such an excellent institution. With sustainability and environmentalism etched into its very DNA, Ecology Building Society engages its members to play a prominent role in its development. “For everything that we do”, its chief executive Paul Ellis told us, “we must be able to point back to a sustainability gain”. So if protecting the environment is high up on your agenda, Ecology would be a perfect match for you.

Have you found your bank yet? If not, and you’re still wondering whether you’re with an ethical or unethical institution, simply do a quick Google search for your bank’s name, followed by ‘controversy’. That’s sure to pull up some thought-provoking stuff – if you’re with an unethical one, that is.

All five banks and one building society on the nice list (along with Move Your Money) feature in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Banking – a rundown of the best, ethical, sustainable and responsible banking options in the UK. But there are hundreds of other similarly excellent alternative options for you to choose from.

We hope you make the right decision.

What do you think of Blue & Green Tomorrow? Complete our short reader survey and be in with a chance to win an iPad mini or a Kindle Fire. Survey closes December 21.

Further reading:

Sustainable banks more ‘robust and resilient’ than high street institutions

Interest in ethical options surges amid UK banking melee

Ex-Goldman Sachs director: unethical banking affects everyone

Investors look to ethical options after banking instability

The Guide to Sustainable Banking

Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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Environment

How to Build An Eco-Friendly Home Pool

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eco-friendly pool for home owners
Licensed Image from Shutterstock - By alexandre zveiger

Swimming pools are undoubtedly one of the most luxurious features that any home can have. But environmentally-conscious homeowners who are interested in having a pool installed may feel that the potential issues surrounding wasted water, chemical use and energy utilized in heating the water makes having a home swimming pool difficult to justify.

But there is good news, because modern technologies are helping to make pools far less environmentally harmful than ever before. If you are interested in having a pool built but you want to make sure that it is as eco-friendly as possible, you can follow the advice below. From natural pools to solar panel heating systems, there are many steps that you can take.

Choose a natural pool to go chemical free

For those homeowners interested in an eco-friendly pool, the first thing to consider is a natural pool. Natural swimming pools utilise reed bed technology or moss-filtration to naturally filter out dirt from the water. These can be combined with eco-pumps to allow you to have a pool that is completely free from chemicals.

Not only are traditional pool chemicals potentially harmful to the skin, they also mean that you can contaminate the area around the pool if chemical-filled water leaks or is splashed around. This can be bad for your garden and the environment general.

It will be necessary to work with an expert pool builder to ensure that you have the expertise to get your natural pool installed properly. But the results with definitely be worth the effort and planning that you have to put in.

Avoid concrete if possible

The vast majority of home pools are built using concrete but this is far from ideal in terms of an eco-friendly pool for a large number of reasons. Concrete pools are typically built and then lined to stop keep out any bacteria. This is theoretically fine, except that concrete is porous and the lining can be liable to erode or break which can allow bacteria to enter the pool.

It is much better to use a non-porous material such as fibreglass or carbon ceramic composite for your pool. Typically, these swimming pools are supplied in a one-piece shell rather than having to be built from scratch, ensuring a bacteria-free environment. These non-porous materials make it impossible for the water to become contaminated through bacteria seeping into the pool by osmosis.

The further problem that can arise from having a concrete pool is that once this bacteria begins to get into the pool it can be more difficult for a natural filtration system to be effective. This can lead to you having to resort to using chemicals to get the pool clean.

Add solar panels

It is surprising how many will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their pool is as eco-friendly as possible in terms of building and maintaining it but then fall down on something extremely obvious. No matter what steps you take with the rest of your pool, it won’t really be worth the hassle if you are going to be conventionally heating your pool up, using serious amounts of energy to do so.

Thankfully there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure that your pool is heated to a pleasant temperature while causing minimal damage to the environment. Firstly, gathering energy using solar panels has become a very popular way to reduce consumption of electricity as well as decreasing utility bills. Many businesses offer solar panels specifically for swimming pools.

Additionally, installing an energy efficient heat pump or boiler to work in conjunction with your solar panels can be hugely beneficial.

Cover it!

Finally, it is worth remembering that there are many benefits to investing in a pool cover. When you cover your pool you increase its heat retention which stops you from having to power a pump or boiler to keep it warm. This works in conjunction with the solar panels and eco-friendly heating system that you have already had installed.

Additionally, you cover helps to keep out dirt and other detritus that can enter the pool, bringing in bacteria. Anything that you can do to keep bacteria out will be helpful in terms of keeping it clean.

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