Sustainability Spurs Industrywide Action At UNFCU

The Empire State cooperative’s Global Sustainability Program has evolved to encompass more goals, a broader network, and more conversations with industry participants.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • United Nations FCU set eight goals for 2015-2020 to make its operations more sustainable. It achieved seven.
  • The cooperative has now set 12 new goals — half aimed internally, the other half geared to grow sustainability within the credit union movement.

United Nations FCU ($7.0B, Long Island City, NY) established its Global Sustainability Program (GSP) in 2015. Modeled after its sponsor’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the credit union’s program tied eight sustainable business practices to the cooperative’s strategic objectives.

Like the United Nations did to establish an SDG timeline, in its case by 2030, UNFCU set a five-year Sustainability Action Plan for achieving the following goals:

  1. Incorporate sustainability into strategic planning process and core values.
  2. Produce an annual sustainability report starting in 2017.
  3. Achieve and maintain climate neutrality starting in 2016.
  4. Reduce paper use by 25%.
  5. Implement sustainable travel guidelines.
  6. Develop and launch green products.
  7. Develop sustainable purchasing strategy.
  8. Reduce energy use by 7% in operationally controlled buildings.

From 2015 to 2020, UNFCU worked internal and externally to meet its GSP goals. It ran an internal campaign to reduce copy paper usage and encouraged members to register for digital account statements. In 2018, it introduced an impact share certificate that funnels funds to projects that make a positive impact, such as affordable housing and environmentally conscious builds. The credit union also established a supplier code of conduct to encourage suppliers to adopt practices that support sustainability.

As part of its Global Sustainability Program, UNFCU has produced an annual sustainability report for the past five years. Download them all here.

By 2020, UNFCU had reached seven of its eight goals, some by large margins. For example, it reduced its paper usage by 60% compared to its 25% goal. However, it was not able to reduce energy use by its target of 7%. According to Prasad Surapaneni, UNFCU’s CIO and the co-executive sponsor of the GSP, the credit union fell short of its goal at 5%. Significant membership and internal staff growth since 2015 affected the energy goal’s performance. UNFCU nonetheless made notable progress decreasing energy use per unit area, per employee, and per member with improvements to data center and operationally efficiencies.

“We were able to do a lot of good,” Surapaneni says. “It takes a village to do this work, and we’re proud that we engaged our staff, our members, and the whole community.”

But the work is far from done. In June 2021, UNFCU published its 2020 Impact Report, which recapped the past five years of its Global Sustainability Program and introduced a new set of goals to reach by 2025.

A Dozen New Goals

To develop a new set of goals, UNFCU solicited feedback and took inspiration from more than 50 internal stakeholders, dozens of members, external stakeholders, and, of course, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“We’ve closely aligned our corporate social responsibility with the UN SDGs,” Surapaneni says. “These goals, which aim to reduce social and economic inequalities in addition to climate change, represent an opportunity for us to advocate, partner, and extend our impact. We wanted our 2025 targets to be bigger and better.”

Heeding closely to nine of the UN’s 17 SDGs, the credit union has introduced 12 goals split into two categories — Innovation & Leadership and Sustainable Operations. Those goals are:

Innovation & Leadership

  • Goal 1: Elevate sustainability in the credit union industry by educating credit unions on the UN SDGs.
  • Goal 2: Achieve United Nations Global Compact Advanced Level Communication on Progress.
  • Goal 3: Create a pathway for vendors to align with the UN SDGs.
  • Goal 4: Explore impact finance and investment opportunities and guidelines.
  • Goal 5: Enhance the positive impact of members’ financial choices by increasing the number of green share, loan, and investment accounts by 200%.
  • Goal 6: Engage staff to act on UNFCU sustainability goals throughout their workday by creating opportunities for awareness and education.

Sustainable Operations

  • Goal 1: Publish an annual impact report based on progress toward the SDGs.
  • Goal 2: Ensure that 30% of procurement spend goes to vendors that meet the highest UNFCU rating for sustainability and social impact criteria.
  • Goal 3: Maintain climate neutrality.
  • Goal 4: Decrease energy use and associated Greenhouse gas emissions per member by 25% relative to a 2019 baseline.
  • Goal 5: Decrease paper use per member by 50% relative to a 2019 baseline. Source at least 80% of purchased paper from certified sustainable sources.
  • Goal 6: Evaluate opportunities for single-use plastic reduction within direct operations.

It’s no accident UNFCU’s 2025 Impact Goals are more externally focused than its first set of goals.

“We wanted to multiply our efforts,” Surapaneni says. “Part of that lies in how we can involve the entire credit union movement.”

Within its own walls, UNFCU hopes to establish even better ways to do business. For example, historically, 15% of its supplier spend has gone to companies that meet its highest sustainability rating as measured by surveys it conducts. The credit union believes where and how it spends its money reflects its values; therefore, it aims to increase that number to 30% by 2025.

“The credit union has evolved in our tracking of supplier relationships,” says Tom Kurian, UNFCU’s vice president of enterprise information security and a GSP program manager. “We’ve created a supplier survey and a framework to measure the sustainability of our supply chain. Questions ranged from do you measure your carbon footprint to asking about a supplier's diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Once we had the initial data, we set our goal to spend money with companies that reflect our values.”

When one of UNFCU’s largest suppliers didn’t meet the highest sustainability rating, the credit union urged the supplier to take its sustainability efforts to the next level.

“We worked to get them from good to that top level,” Kurian says.

For credit unions interested in where their operations stand against the UN Sustainable Development Goals, UNFCU’s Tom Kurian suggests they use the SDG Action Manager. The tool offers users an opportunity to learn more about, manage, and improve their sustainability performance.

Helping vendors improve the supply chain is one way the credit union is facilitating sustainability across the movement, but UNFCU is not stopping there. It also is developing a network of credit union partners.

United In Sustainability

In 2018, UNFCU hosted a Sustainability Summit at the UN headquarters in New York. The one-day credit union conference offered expert presentations, conversation, and success sharing.

“We didn’t think that was going to spawn anything other than an annual conference,” Kurian says. “But the credit unions who attended were engaged and wanted to know what was next.”

CU QUICK FACTS

United Nations FCU
DATA AS OF 03.31.21

HQ: Long Island City, NY
ASSETS: $7.0B
MEMBERS: 165,168
BRANCHES: 3
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 16.3%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 7.2%
ROA: 0.60%

Continued conversation and idea sharing quickly formalized into the United in Sustainability Credit Union Network. According to Kurian, who is one of the network’s main facilitators, the group includes 60 credit union members across North America.

“Our initiative is to move the industry to adopt sustainability writ large,” Kurian says. “We want to leverage the movement’s competitive advantage, which is a community of people who are committed to helping people.”

According to Kurian, the network includes credit unions of varying size and in various points of their sustainable journeys, so it’s not about which organization is doing the most. Rather, it’s an open-sourced incubator for sustainable best practices and successes. To join, a credit union must simply be interested in achieving sustainable ends.

The group holds a quarterly call and convenes once per year for the Sustainability Summit. If health and safety conditions are conducive, the 2021 event will be a hybrid model taking place in November 2021 in Washington, DC, hometown of co-host O.A.S. Staff FCU.

The volume of ideas from network members has necessitated the founding of three working groups for projects to make sustainability an easier sell within the industry

The first group is building a sustainability roadmap with tools, resources, examples, and best practices to help any credit union in its sustainability journey. The second group is developing an impact report that shows how the industry, at large, is tracking on sustainable efforts.

“Showing what we are doing as a movement is always going to be more impactful and tell a fuller story than what a single organization is doing,” Kurian says.

The third group has a broader mission — it is seeking to influence the whole industry, to include associations, regulators, and suppliers.

“When your staff is engaged, your processes are cleaner, and you’re making an impact, that’s when you realize sustainability is the right thing to do.”

Prasad Surapaneni, CIO, UNFCU

By way of a best practice, UNFCU has found sustainability messages resonate just as strongly in financial as operational conversations. Sustainable practices are critical for corporate social responsibility, but they make good business sense, too, especially for organizations looking to make inroads with younger, socially conscious generations.

“It can grow your bottom line, contribute to members' peace of mind, and help you attract and retain motivated staff,” CIO Surapaneni says. “When your staff is engaged, your processes are cleaner, and you’re making an impact, that’s when you realize sustainability is the right thing to do.”

For those interested in joining the United in Sustainability Credit Union Network, UNFCU would love to hear from you. Kurian asks interested parties to email the Network at uisnetwork@unfcu.com.

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