Handelsbanken’s corporate culture is based on a number of things: long-term relations, a low risk tolerance and cost awareness. Elisabet Jamal Bergström, Chief Sustainability Officer at Handelsbanken, explains that in some respects, the Bank has been working with sustainability issues since long before the term sustainability came into widespread usage. In this interview, she talks about the Bank’s work with sustainability.
How can banks contribute to sustainable social development?
The first thought that comes to mind is perhaps the financial sustainability of the banks. A bank should not be a burden to society; it should contribute, for example by paying tax into the system. Handelsbanken is one of the largest taxpayers in Sweden. But a bank must also consider the environmental impact of its operations, as well as human rights and working conditions, both in its own operations and indirectly. Whom do we lend money to? And in what businesses and companies do we invest our customers’ money? Corporate social responsibility must be an integral part of all our operations. Just like every other company, Handelsbanken has to cope with considerable demands. These demands come not only from consumers, employees and other companies, but also from regulatory intervention and global initiatives and agreements supported by Handelsbanken.
How does Handelsbanken work with sustainability?
In some respects, Handelsbanken has been working with sustainability issues since long before the term came into widespread usage. Our corporate culture and business culture both encompass many principles related to sustainability: our long-term relations with customers and employees, our faith in the individual, a low risk tolerance, cost awareness and the fact that we have for many years taken a structured approach to our work with gender equality. These are typical sustainability issues, none of which are new to us. We have a presence in the local community and we integrate sustainability issues into all our operations. This applies equally to our granting of credits and our advisory services, in relation to our suppliers, when we invest our customers’ money and when we develop services and offers for our customers.
How is Handelsbanken meeting customers’ needs and requirements with regards to sustainability?
For some time, we have noticed an increasing demand from our customers for sustainable savings. Sustainability is an important part of the investment processes in our fund management operations. We believe that sustainable business models yield better returns in the longer term. Whether we are talking about mutual funds, asset management or insurance solutions, it is important to have a range of products and services which meet customer expectations, and which take the sustainability aspects into consideration in various ways.
How is sustainability relevant when granting credits?
It’s incredibly relevant. We are used to evaluating financial sustainability and in doing so, we take responsibility for the Bank’s finances, the customer’s economy and society as a whole. When granting credits, we must also take into consideration the social and environmental aspects of sustainability issues. This could be about the countries a company has business operations in, whether there is a particularly high risk of human rights breaches, whether child labour is used. Are there any particular environmental risks for the company’s operations? We need to take a closer look at all these things. These are issues that are critical to the companies’ long-term profitability, to their reputation and, obviously, ultimately also to Handelsbanken.
Could you give three concrete examples of how Handelsbanken has contributed to a sustainable society?
Our funds do not invest in coal companies and we report on the carbon footprint of our funds. A significant proportion of the letters we send to our customers are dispatched using environmental postage solutions. We also have a co-operation with Ecpat in Sweden aimed at preventing and stopping the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Which sustainability issues are people most interested in?
This varies over time, but right now, I’d say climate change, human rights and tax matters are the topics in focus.