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It’s banking, but not as we know it! Ecology Building Society’s AGM

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Any other business?” asked Ecology Building Society chair Malcolm Lynch, obligatorily, at the end of the organisation’s annual general meeting (AGM) in Leeds last month. A man in the audience stood up.

I’d just like to thank everyone for putting on a fantastic event”, he said. Mumbled agreement from all in attendance preceded a round of applause. This was no ordinary AGM.

More often than not, the mainstream media’s coverage of AGMs is usually because of some kind of scandal or a shareholder revolt. Indeed, the Barclays AGM had made headlines in the days before Ecology’s event.

Seventy-five-year-old shareholder Joan Woolard made headlines when she called the board “a bunch of crooks and other, less printable things. Twelve months earlier, over a quarter of Barclays investors had voted “no” to the bank’s executive pay package.

The next few months would be challenging for Barclays (and rightly so, after a whole host of avoidable misdemeanours that included Libor rigging and aggressive” tax avoidance). Clearly, this has left many shareholders feeling pretty angry.

The Ecology event, though, was markedly different – the chalk to mainstream banking’s cheese. It engaged with members in a way that the likes of Barclays and co. wouldn’t – and couldn’t – do.

But this should not be surprising.

Blue & Green Tomorrow sees sustainable investment and ethical finance as essential, and Ecology is one of the more popular options for savers and mortgage customers in the UK.

Its chief executive, Paul Ellis (who, according to a colleague, “bleeds green”), spoke to B&GT for The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2012.

Just less than three weeks before Ecology’s AGM, the society unveiled its annual results for 2012.

Its £459,000 surplus last year was £34,000 greater than the amount it recorded in 2011. And while its gross lending to sustainable projects fell £4m to £14.3m, its overall mortgage balance surpassed £75m for the first time (£77.34m).

At the time, Ecology described the numbers as “further evidence that an ethical, long-term approach is essential for the future of the UK’s financial sector.”

But while these statistics are encouraging, it’s important to look at them in relation to the whole market. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, the industry’s trade association, estimates that mortgage lending in the first three months of 2013 stood at over £33 billion – so £77.34m is somewhat of a drop in the ocean.

That said, the National House-Builders Council registered 22% more new homes in that period than in 2012. Some 31,739 new builds – the highest amount since 2008 – were unveiled between January and March. This is a market that smaller mortgage lenders like Ecology need to seriously tap into.

The first two hours of its AGM consisted of the board of directors going through the ins and outs of the annual report, before speaking briefly about themselves – and why the society’s members should re-elect them for another year.

All four directors were elected, with well over 90% voting in favour in each case. The remuneration policy and accounts were also passed without fuss.

The role of KPMG as auditor, however, was not so convincing. The firm – one of the so-called ‘big four’ accountancy giants, along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers – is often held to account over its ethics, and its involvement in tax avoidance schemes.

Ellis and finance director Pam Waring both gave detailed explanations about why Ecology had chosen KPMG – the crux being that the task of auditing the building society was too large for smaller accountancy firms.

Putting the financial reports aside for the afternoon, attendees were invited to take part in workshops and listen to a couple of keynote speeches about ‘people powered money’ – the tagline that Ecology had chosen for its event.

Among the contributors were Bruce Davis, co-founder of Abundance Generation; Laura Willoughby, chief executive of Move Your Money; and Rob Harrison of Ethical Consumer magazine.

At one point, Ellis – in 20 minutes – attempted to answer the question, “What’s gone wrong with finance and what are the alternatives?” The fact that he had to noticeably rush his contribution spoke volumes on both accounts.

Throughout the afternoon, the enthusiasm for sustainable finance was evident. Members explained just how badly the big banks had treated them, and their reasons for choosing a more ethical home for their finances or mortgages in Ecology.

But building societies are a dying breed. Fewer than 50 still exist in the UK. Nationwide, Yorkshire Building Society and Skipton are among the best-known, while Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester, Halifax, Bradford & Bingley and the Woolwich are among those to have demutualised in the last two decades or so.

Despite their decline, building societies remain a more responsible alternative to mainstream banking. However, they by no means have all the answers to finance’s problems.

One big barrier is to overcome the age gap. Part of the reason for some of the bigger institutions dropping their status as a mutual is to reach out into different markets, so that they don’t just offer savings accounts and mortgages. Naturally, this has seen the average age of a building society customer rise.

Being an organisation with a focus on sustainability, a number of Ecology members had taken out a mortgage because of Ecology’s focus on energy efficient eco-homes (including one gentleman who waxed lyrical about the government’s failure to incentivise green buildings. He had some rather choice words to say about the green deal, too).

Reaching out to younger customers – those building for their future, rather than building their homes – was highlighted as a key challenge for the society. Young people want the whole shebang – online access and more – from their bank accounts. This is a shortfall that many building societies are struggling to overcome..

Bridging the gap between the two demographics is therefore crucial for building societies to survive, and more importantly, flourish.

Being able to have such a personal relationship with the board is a USP that societies need to maintain. There was none of the more typical “I understand your concerns, but…” from the board; instead, you got the impression they genuinely wanted to know how they can make their business more transparent, democratic, popular and sustainable.

The AGMs we read about in the news ought to be the abnormalities. People should be leaving Barclays’ AGM thinking, “What, no workshops? I can’t have a coffee with the chief executive? How odd!

As the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) – of which Ecology is a member – said in its Berlin declaration document from March, in order for banking institutions to become more stable and people-orientated, they need to focus on transparency, sustainability and diversity.

These three points really are key to getting us out of the torrid mess that a select few irresponsible institutions have landed us in.

Further reading:

Saving the world or getting healthy returns is a false choice in finance

‘Growing confidence in alternative finance’ as ethical lending grows

‘A small bit of knowledge can help empower you around your own finances’

Swimming against the tide: ethical banks as countermovement

The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2012

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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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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