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Banks fail to shine in sustainability survey

Only three out of 15 Swiss retail banks demonstrate sustainable development ‘good practices’, according to a survey published by WWF Switzerland, which examined the environmental and social impact of bank policies and financial products.

Bern Cantonal Bank, Raiffeisen Group and Zurich Cantonal Bank were the best-ranked and ‘on the right track’ in terms of sustainable development, the study revealed.

At the other end of the scale were the Valiant and PostFinance banks, said WWF. They qualified as ‘latecomers’ and ranked as below-average. No Swiss retail bank was considered ‘pioneering’ or ‘visionary’ – the survey’s top classifications.

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s two biggest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, were ranked ‘average’, alongside the cantonal banks of Vaud, Aargau, Lucerne, St Gallen, Basel-City and Basel Country, together with the Migros Bank and the Neue Aargauer Bank.

“The biggest Swiss retail banks are still in their infancy in terms of sustainable development,” the WWF report published on Wednesday said. It added that most had not grasped the importance of the effects of sustainable development on their banking products, and few had fixed specific sustainable targets.

This is the first time the Swiss environmental organisation has taken a detailed look at the sustainable policies and offers of Swiss banks and analysed their environmental and social impacts. The authors focused on banks’ savings and investment policies, as well as insurance, loans and finance schemes and good governance.

In statements, PostFinance and Valiant admitted they had room to improve. PostFinance, however, stressed that it was committed to socially responsible investments and using renewable energies, and said it offered a balanced family-work environment for its 4,000 staff.

UBS welcomed the study while underlining its lead role in the field of environmental risk management. Credit Suisse, meanwhile, defended its record stating that it had scored ‘above-average in five of the eight categories analysed’.

Activists’ pressure

Various initiatives are underway in Switzerland pushing for more responsible businesses. A coalition of 80 non-governmental organisations and trade unions are backing a people’s initiative that would make all Swiss companies responsible for conducting due diligence for their activities in any part of the world. It wants Swiss companies to comply with human rights and environmental standards when they operate abroad – or be brought to account before Swiss courts.

Elsewhere, the Ethos Foundation, which advises pension funds on responsible investments, this year created a new Swiss stock market index to reward socially responsible firms and penalise the stock value of companies with fat cat pay structures.

Some campaigners have banks and pension companies in their sights. In April, a group of 135 scientists, politicians, religious leaders and activists wrote an open letter to the Swiss National Bank asking it to stop investing in fossil fuel companies listed on the US stock exchange.

Meanwhile, activists from the pacifist group ‘Switzerland Without an Army’ are collecting signatures for a people’s initiativeto ban the financing of companies that produce war materiel. The text of the campaign wants to bans the Swiss National Bank, foundations and pension schemes from investing in the arms industry.

In parallel, a national campaign by a responsible investment pension group to blacklist 15 international arms firms recently led to the Swiss state pension fund, Publica, announcing that it plans to disinvest from five weapons companies.