When Is Doing The Right Thing Good For Business, Too?

A Global Sustainability Program at United Nations Federal Credit Union comprises eight goals and programs to complete over a five-year period.


Top-Level Takeaways

  • To align with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNFCU introduced eight sustainability goals in 2015 to reach by 2020.
  • The credit union has hit seven of the goals and now has set its sights on inspiring others to embrace sustainable business operations.
  • On Oct. 23, the credit union will hold its second annual United in Sustainability Credit Union Summit.

Nearly 20 years ago, the United Nations introduced a set of goals that acted as a blueprint to meet the needs of the world's poorest individuals. The eight Millennium Development Goals included environmental, social, and economic directives, all of which the organization hoped to complete by 2015. When the period came to an end, the UN rolled out a new set of strategies for the next fifteen years, dubbed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With the introduction of these goals, the United Nations Federal Credit Union ($5.8B, Long Island City, NY) began asking more questions of itself.  In 2008, five employees had joined together to create a green team that advocated for and educated employees about ways to practice sustainability — mainly at home but to some extent at the office as well. Now, the credit union questioned whether it was aligned with its sponsor when it came to sustainability? Was the credit union conducting business as a good corporate citizen?

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides its vision for the future of the planet.

The green team was doing good work, but for the entire organization to make inroads toward sustainability, let alone to approach the UN’s goals, the credit union needed to do more.

Pamela Agnone, Senior Vice President of Retail Services, UNFCU

“If we wanted to make a positive impact in the way we conducted our work, then we needed to mobilize,” says Pamela Agnone, the executive sponsor of UNFCU's Global Sustainability Program and senior vice president of retail services. 

In 2015, the credit union created a Global Sustainability Program that shapes UNFCU’s values, operations, and member service by tying eight sustainable business practices into the credit union’s strategic objectives. As the UN did with its SDGs, UNFCU set a five-year time frame for achieving its initial set of sustainable goals, which are set for an update in 2020.

Using the SDGs as a jumping-off point, the credit union hired a third-party consultant to administer a materiality assessment and help the credit union determine what were the things that could make the biggest difference to sustainability, Agnone says. 

Through stakeholder interviews with members and employees, UNFCU identified goals that would make sustainability operational, effective, and meaningful. Those goals offered a financial incentive, too.

“We quickly learned that every decision made around sustainability also has a positive impact on the credit union’s bottom line,” Agnone says. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes business sense for the credit union.”

A Priority Now


Data as of 06.30.19

HQ: Long Island City, NY
MEMBERS: 138,670
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 14.2%
ROA: 0.93%

For UNFCU, its sustainability efforts started in earnest when it began to take them seriously. Soon after establishing its Global Sustainability Program, it adopted “practice sustainability” as one of the cooperative’s core values. 

“That set the direction from the top,” Agnone says. “All the business lines within the credit union understand that this is a priority now.”

Of the eight sustainability goals the credit union set for 2020, UNFCU has achieved seven. Those goals are:

  1. Incorporate sustainability into strategic planning process and core values. Soon after establishing its program, the credit union added “practice sustainability” into its core values.
  2. Produce an annual sustainability report starting in 2017. UNFCU has produced a report each of the past two years that showcases its progress toward sustainability. “We’re trying to be transparent in how and where we’re making progress, and why,” Agnone says.
  3. Achieve and maintain carbon neutrality starting in 2016. Each year, UNFCU conducts a carbon emission study based on internationally recognized standards. The credit union voluntarily includes business travel in its inventory, which is optional under the standard, yet has still achieved 100% carbon neutrality across its operations since 2016. “That’s despite growing members and staff in that time,” Agnone says.
  4. Reduce paper use by 25%. In 2015, UNFCU used more than 80,000 pounds of paper across its business operations. Through a concerted effort to have members adopt electronic delivery of notices, it reduced paper use more than 35% and sourced 75% of the paper it did use from certified sustainable sources. 
  5. Implement sustainable travel guidelines. According to the credit union, business travel represented 12% of its total emissions in 2018. UNFCU has a global membership. Therefore, the need for staff and volunteers to travel internationally can arise when it's not possible to connect virtually. “We wanted to provide guidelines and education for our staff and volunteers around how to make sustainable choices in terms of their mode of transport and hotel accommodations,” Agnone says. 
  6. Develop and launch green products. The credit union began to finance loans for solar panels, but its biggest success came on the deposit side. In 2018, it launched its 12-month Impact Share Certificate. UNFCU’s corporate investment team earmarked those deposits to invest in projects with a positive environmental and social impact, including securities that promoted affordable housing, public transportation, clear water, and more. Already this year, the credit union’s new account openings has jumped more than 30% compared to 2018.
  7. Develop sustainable purchasing strategy. In 2018, UNFCU required all vendors that provide more than $50,000 in services to complete an annual questionnaire. It also asks the same of third parties in major RFP processes. Questions include: What is your carbon footprint? Do you have policies on energy and paper use? Do you have policies on diversity, equity, or inclusion? The credit union scores vendors based on their answers and shares the results internally. “There’s no mandate to choose a vendor based on the score,” Agnone says. “But it feeds into our decision-making calculus.”
  8. Reduce energy use by 7% in operationally controlled buildings. UNFCU is unlikely to hit its energy reduction goal because its electricity usage has increased 11.3% since 2015. Prior to setting the goal, the credit union had already implemented energy-efficient lighting and high-efficiency cooling appliances at facilities where it has direct control over energy use. But in 2018, a major tenant of its headquarters building departed, requiring the credit union to re-assume office space. This added 31% more operationally controlled space to UNFCU’s count. 

UNFCU’s goals for 2015 were all internally focused, but as the credit union develops its next five-year sustainability plan, it is looking outward. 

“What’s important to us is engaging more credit unions,” Agnone says.

UNFCU wants to encourage more credit unions to sign the UN’s Global Compact, which the credit union has been an active signatory on for a decade, and actively report on their progress toward the compact’s 10 principles. 

“That’s a great way to get started,” the SVP says. 

For those credit unions that want to take the next step, UNFCU has created a Sustainability Network that meets via conference call two or three times per year to listen to guest speakers and discuss sustainability strategies. In 2018, the credit union hosted its first Sustainability Summit, a one-day conference held at the United Nations headquarters where credit union and vendor attendees educate themselves and talk in depth about sustainability. The 2019 Summit, scheduled to take place Oct. 23, is larger in attendance than last year and includes a keynote from Satya Tripathi, UN assistant secretary general and head of its environment program.  

It can be challenging to find a jumping-off point for tackling sustainability, but Agnone believes credit unions have an opportunity to be leaders in the space. For UNFCU, sharing successful strategies and lessons learned is an easy, small way to inspire others to get started.

“Whether you are large or small, there are ways for you to get started,” she says. “Every little bit matters. It’s a step forward.” 

Leverage Your Purpose For Greater Impact

Learn more about our next cohort of Sustainable Business Strategy with Rebecca Henderson, in collaboration with Harvard Business School online. The Callahan Academy combines Harvard teachings and credit union industry discussions to explore:

  • Business models that drive change.
  • Tactics that demonstrate the competitive advantages of being a purpose-driven firm.
  • Why collective efforts are important and how business can be a catalyst for system-level change.
  • What you can do to become a purpose-driven leader and how you can develop purpose-driven leaders within you organization. 

Learn More

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