Karen Clarke-Whistler is Toronto-Dominion Bank’s other CEO – its chief environment officer. The role doesn’t exist in any other large North American bank, and gives her unique power to influence TD decisions in every aspect of its business. Ms. Clarke-Whistler, who spent most of her career as an environmental consultant, joined the bank in the newly created role in 2008 and has helped turn TD into an environmental leader.
Why did TD create the job of a chief environment officer?
[TD] recognized in about 2007 that environment was becoming increasingly linked to the economy. Our senior executive team said, “We don’t quite understand how this all fits together, but we know it is important.” [They wanted] somebody to work at a senior level, reporting into the senior executive team, and someone who was not a banker but a scientist.
What part of the bank’s business do you have an influence on?It encompasses every aspect of the bank: How we operate our business, environmental risk and opportunity in our financing and investing, green-product options, and engaging our employees and communities.
Is this really a C-suite position with actual power?I definitely lead by influence. But we have established specific goals that everybody has to follow, and they are goals that bite. I report directly into the senior executive team on a quarterly basis, and I report annually to our board. They are very happy with us setting aggressive goals.
Do you have veto power on lending?
One of my first jobs when I arrived was to overhaul our environmental due-diligence processes around financing. We have said no to certain projects. I think we have educated our credit originators enough that they will look at a project and say: Before we even get into this, we think there are going to be some challenges.
Does your role create some tensions with the lending group?
I think they were very worried when I arrived, [but] I didn’t turn up in a hemp skirt hugging a tree. We have built a great relationship, [especially] in our resource lending sector. I often accompany our folks in their interactions with clients. I work on advisory and working committees with many of our resource clients.
Can you actually control how borrowers use the money they get from the bank?
The reality is that our financing is corporate finance, as opposed to project finance. That means we have long term relationships with customers who may undertake projects that become controversial or challenging. We try to work through those specific aspects with them. I find that the Canadian resource industry is very sensitive to these issues now.
One of the bank’s big projects has been to drastically reduce its paper use. Why is that?
We went to our customers and asked them what [they thought] was the bank’s biggest environmental impact. They said, “You send us too much paper.” So we looked at the operational footprint, and found that it costs about 15 times more to manage and move paper, than the actual cost of the paper itself.
It also gave us an opportunity to work with our customers in the forestry sector to advocate for certified forest products. We calculate the amount of paper we use, and link that into an equivalent amount of forested area we will protect every year. It works out to between two and three football fields a day.
How much have you reduced paper use within the bank so far?
We are on target to meet our 2015 goal of a 20-per-cent reduction relative to 2010.
Is it better to use third parties, such as the Nature Conservancy, rather than doing some of these things yourself?
We tried developing some of our own carbon-offset projects when we were setting off, and we learned that we should stick to what we are good at, and use third parties who really know what they are doing.
How did you reduce the bank’s overall carbon emissions?
Within three months of my joining the bank, we made the decision that TD would be carbon neutral. As part of that we were going to transform the way we design, build and operate our facilities. That helped us understand about procurement of renewable energy. And we tried to develop and purchase innovative carbon offsets.
How do your new facilities reduce their carbon impact?
We have designed [some of] our buildings so they are net-zero-energy ready – they can produce as much or more energy than they use. They are kitted out with the most energy-efficient and -effective lighting, insulation, and windows. They use digital [documents] versus paper. [They generate power] from geothermal and solar. We have a couple of electric vehicle charging stations, checking out how they work.
The biggest limitation is that our retail facilities are not that large, and with current solar technology you need a lot of panels. [In our new branch] in London, Ont., we have built a solar park to make sure we are generating enough.
What has been done to make your big office towers more energy efficient?
We have reduced our energy use more in these towers than in any other part of our operations. There has been a 30-per-cent energy reduction. We have also pretty much doubled our employee intensity – twice as many employees are in half the space.
Do you sense a backlash against environmental spending?
Because of government debt, people are very conscious of putting money into something that might take longer to pay off. But on the flip side, consumers expect certain standards now. The bar is being continually raised.
Should the federal government be taking a stronger position on environmental issues?
It would be a strong signal if they did. Canada has the opportunity to be an environmental leader, and anything to enable that would be helpful. Industry is making a good run, but it would be great if all levels of government could align behind that.
What are the “green-product options” you offer to customers?
When I first started, I thought we needed to have green products for green consumers – [things such as] green mortgages and green investments. I found that it is very hard to create a pure green product because, let’s face it, when people are dealing with financial products, they are looking at the best return they can get. That is the primary driver. So what we have embarked on, is to bring green attributes into existing products. We now offer insurance discounts for hybrid and electric vehicles. And we have really amped up our on-line banking.
Were you hesitant to join a larger bureaucratic institution where it can be hard to get decisions made?
I have been committed to the environment since I was a kid. I’ve always known what I wanted to do, which is to save the world, through making the environment better. Coming to a big organization gave me the opportunity to put my philosophy and my ideas into practise. Nobody has said no to me yet at TD.
My belief is that proper development, done sustainably, will make you money. There might be a short-term outlay, but in the long term you are going to make money off of it – at the very least in energy savings.