Work at a bank? Here are 5 ways you can take climate action right now

Bank staff are in a prime position to take meaningful climate action.

James Shackell
A woman in a suit working at a standup desk, scrolling through her phone

Australia’s ‘Big Four’ banks all have net zero 2050 commitments. Unfortunately, ANZ, CommBank, NAB and Westpac together pumped a combined $8.9 billion into coal, oil and gas in 2020. But employees of these institutions can still make a difference when it comes to climate. Here’s how.  

Working in a bank might seem like an odd place to join the climate fight, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks to fossil fuel lending, the banking industry has a disproportionate impact on climate change. Australia’s ‘Big Four’ banks, for example, funded $835 million of fossil fuel expansion projects in 2020, generating an additional 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2.

This is obviously not great, but it also means banking is where employees can have the biggest impact. “Shifting bank policies needs all hands on the wheel,” says Christian Slattery from climate campaign organisation, MarketForces. “Employees have a central role to play in shaping their bank's investment strategy, as it’s in the bank's interest to keep staff happy and maintain an image that will attract quality recruits.” 

So what can banking employees do to take action on climate? Here are 5 tips to get you started. 

1. Start climate training

If you don’t know where to start, there are several online finance courses that can help. Our 10-week climate cohort program can help your bank hit its climate goals faster, or divest away from heavy carbon emitters. NAB has also teamed up with Melbourne Business School to offer its staff dedicated climate training, in order to help customers transition to low-carbon alternatives.

“The people who are attracted to banking are always bright, driven individuals, and they recognise that climate change is now a macroeconomic shift,” says Michael Lambden, Head of Climate and Sustainability Solutions at NAB. “There’s an extraordinary appetite for climate action within the banking industry.”

“There’s an extraordinary appetite for climate action within the banking industry.”

Other online courses, such as those offered by FINSIA (the industry body for banking and finance) or the University of Cambridge are great places to start.

2. Create a ‘Green Team’

If your bank doesn’t have a sustainability or ‘Green Team’, setting one up is a good first step. By reaching out to colleagues, you’ll amplify your voices and increase the chances of real, systemic change. And what can your Green Team tackle? Well, anything really. You can start with small projects – recycling in the kitchens, more sustainable office suppliers etc. – and work your way up to the big three.

For banks, that’s being 100% powered by renewable energy, divesting away from heavy carbon emitters, and switching all employee super contributions to an ethical super fund. None of these steps are as tricky as they sound. In fact, we’ve written handy guides on all of them.  

“Don’t try to solve everything at once. Think about your role and your particular skills.”

“I think it’s really important to first understand how banks work, at a high level, to understand the financial flows. Then you can find the bits that relate to your current work, where you can contribute,” says Bank Australia’s Senior Impact Finance Manager, Jane Kern. “Don’t try to solve everything at once. Think about your role and your particular skills.”

3. Write to decision makers

Sometimes it takes months of meetings to make institutional change. Other times, one email can do the trick. If you’re worried about your bank’s stance on climate, or you feel that their sustainability efforts aren’t moving fast enough, write to a decision-maker and make your case.

There’s definitely a right way to do this. You need to target the right person within your bank (this could be the head of sustainability, an investment or procurement manager, or even the CEO), frame the change in terms of tangible benefit, and provide evidence to back up your claims. At the end of the day, banks care about profits, and there’s nothing profitable about having your long-term investment portfolio tied up in fossil fuels (in fact, it’s becoming a serious financial liability).

Slattery says it’s up to employees to make their voices heard. “By asking questions at staff events, raising concerns with management about your bank's investment decisions, and organising campaigns with your colleagues, you can help to drive your bank towards a more sustainable position.”

4. Make a personal contribution

Most banks offer their employees a few volunteer days each year, and there are plenty of worthy climate causes that need your time. You could join a climate strike, attend a tree-planting day, or contribute your skillset to a not-for-profit like Climate For Change.  

"Banks are so connected to the real economy. The change we can influence through them is enormous.”  

Will volunteering alone shift the needle on global warming? Probably not. But it’s a good way to alleviate climate anxiety, make like-minded friends, and keep that whole existential dread thing at bay. If your bank doesn’t have any climate-related volunteer schemes, do your research and pitch a program. Maybe you can get more colleagues on board. The sky’s the limit with this one.  

5. Change banks 

“The key question employees should ask is – where is the bank’s money going? If money is still flowing to companies building and planning new coal, oil and gas projects, then the bank's climate performance is dismal,” Slattery says.  

At the end of the day, working somewhere that doesn’t align with your climate values is simply not good for your mental health. And there are alternatives out there. If your bank isn’t moving fast enough on climate change, look for opportunities at ethical financial institutions like Bank Australia, Teachers Mutual Bank or Bank First. MarketForces have put together a handy list of banks with no track record of fossil fuel investment, to make the task easier. Remember, your labour and your skills are your biggest assets, and if banks want to retain top talent, they’re going to have to take climate action seriously.  

Remember, banking represents climate’s biggest threat, but also its biggest opportunity. “I’m genuinely excited about the power of money to make a change, and particularly in banks,” Kern says. "Banks are so connected to the real economy. The change we can influence through them is enormous.”  

Ready to take the next step? Join the WorkForClimate Academy, our new 10-week cohort program designed to help you take significant climate action in your workplace. Full details and registration information here.  

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions via Unsplash.
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