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Clearing the Air: Is Trust Part of CSR?

By Melissa J. Anderson

Most corporate responsibility reports include information on sustainability initiatives, corporate volunteering, community investment, and other efforts that are deemed “good for society,” but are not necessarily business-critical.

Last week Bank of America released its first ever CSR report, which includes a lot more than that. CEO Brian T. Moynihan wrote:

“In 2010, the global economy continued its recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s. While there are a number of positive signs that the economy is improving, we recognize the role the financial industry played in this crisis and are committed to working with policymakers, financial institutions and others in the private sector to restore growth and foster greater stability going forward.”

The report delves into the work Bank of America is doing to boost the economy, recognizing the role its industry played in the recession. What’s interesting is that the bank considers this work corporate social responsibility – not merely an economic or market-based concern, but a social one as well.

Moynihan continued, “There continue to be challenges ahead as the U.S. and global economies slowly grow their way out of the crisis. We see opportunities, too. In this report, you will find a summary of the many specific steps we are taking to address both.”

Winning Back Trust with Tangible Actions

The stated goal of the report and BofA’s CSR efforts is to win back trust. As Anne M. Finucane, Global Strategy and Marketing Officer, wrote:

“The aftereffects of the crisis and the slow economic recovery on Main Street have resulted in increased skepticism of our motives, constant scrutiny of our actions and compromised credibility of our claims. Consumers across all segments of income and wealth want our industry to acknowledge that we understand how they feel about the economy and the relationship they want with their bank. They want tangible actions that demonstrate that we have their interests at heart rather than our own.”

According to the Bank, this year it has embarked on a number of outreach initiatives to try to win back public trust, including:

  • Increasing and modifying home loans
  • Eliminating overdraft fees
  • Strengthening liquidity, credit reserve positions, asset quality, and overall capital levels
  • Dealing with its purchase of Countrywide, and expressing how that effects stakeholders
  • Investing in the clean/green industry (According to the report, “Since 2007, the company has invested $11.6 billion in solar and environmental projects as part of a larger $20 billion, 10-year Environmental Business Initiative”)
  • Increasing loans to small and medium-sized businesses by $10 billion since 2009
  • Improving on supplier diversity by spending $4.1 billion with small and medium-sized diverse suppliers

Clearing the Air: Is Trust Part of CSR?

In addition to Bank of America’s trust-building efforts, the report details its extensive sustainability efforts. The Bank has achieved an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to a 2004 baseline, and the bank has committed to cutting an additional 15 percent by 2015.

The bank also “reached the $11.6 billion mark on a 10-year, $20 billion environmental business initiative, which is addressing climate change through our lending, investing, products and services, and enhancing the efficiency of our own operations.”

And, as FastCompany’s Ariel Schwartz noted, the Bank provides an employee perk of “$3,000 towards the purchase of an electric, hybrid, or compressed natural gas car.”

Schwartz is less impressed with the Bank’s move toward trust as a dimension of corporate responsibility. She writes:

“The report does address some of the steps Bank of America is taking to prevent another mortgage crisis. This includes the introduction of a new loan modification program, as well as necessary preparations for upcoming U.S. mortgage industry reforms. Will these changes cut down on further financial damage and help people with bad mortgages held by the bank? We’ll see.”

In fact, it is quite interesting the Bank’s efforts to take responsibility for its share of the global economic crisis are lumped in with sustainability efforts. Perhaps it marks a shift in what sustainability really means – acknowledging that trust and ethical behavior is just as much part of a healthy environment as clean air.

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