Green Initiatives at Alternatives Federal Credit Union

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Tompkins Weekly – July 5, 2010
by Suzanne Cerquone

We’ve all heard the term “greenwashing” by now – companies who disingenuously spin their products and policies as environmentally friendly. Greenwashing isn’t even that new of a term – it was coined by an environmentalist in 1986 after he observed the practice of major hotel chains promoting the reuse of towels to guests as a way to be more green, when it was really more of a cost-cutting measure for the hotels.

In the 21st century, we see greenwashing all around us – some quite obvious, some not so obvious. The question remains – how does the average company establish effective, true green policies while at the same time adhering to budgets and bottom lines? Sometimes “going green” means saving money, and sometimes it doesn’t. Often companies must bridge the gap between the two in terms of affecting true environmental change – and in uncertain economic times, this gap is often seen as too large.

At Alternatives Federal Credit Union, we have found that there are steps to creating real, effective environmental change over the years. First, make sure your staff buys in. You’ll always have some eco-enthusiasts among the bunch, but don’t forget to communicate to all staff why these changes are important. Even if the non-greenies don’t care as much, they’ll at least understand the reasoning. Secondly, get staff involved. Alternatives has been able to compost our kitchen scraps for years now, thanks to certain staff volunteering to take the compost home. Assemble a “Green Team.” Our Green Team meets regularly, and routinely initiates new internal and eternal projects. One internal project was working with staff to reduce our electricity usage, which resulted in a yearly savings of 26,800 kilowatts and $8,993 from 2008 to 2009. External projects include community tree planting, and also working closely with community organizations like Sustainable Tompkins and the Finger Lakes Climate Fund for a better understanding of community concerns.

Thirdly, listen to your customers. They’re most likely trying to reduce/reuse/recycle more themselves, and are paying attention to corporate waste as well. Years ago, Alternatives was first in the local marketplace to provide home loans for people who wanted to live “off the grid” – we weighed the risk vs. the need and decided it was well worth the endeavor. More recently, one of our members who frequents our Drive-Thru felt we desperately needed a “Please don’t idle for more than ten seconds” sign, as idling your car longer than that is detrimental to both one’s car and the environment. Don’t treat customer complaints or requests negatively – if anything, they’re either pointing out something you’re not paying enough attention to, or they’re helping you move something up your “to do” list more quickly!

Lastly, cost cutting measures can be good if you plan to “use that power for good.” Our dramatic cuts to our NYSEG bill enable us to evaluate using that money elsewhere for energy efficient improvements, or to create new green products that suit the marketplace.

Corporate responsibility is becoming such an oft-used term it might ring false for some (see: BP’s many PR blunders of late). But if anything, corporate responsibility is more important than ever, and this responsibility starts on a local level, no matter how big your company is. If we’re all truthful and transparent in our environmental efforts, customer loyalty is sure to follow.

Suzanne Cerquone is the Marketing Director at Alternatives Federal Credit Union.

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