Unlike many big banks, ING is more focused on getting things done than seeking green publicity

ING takes a typically Dutch approach to responsible business. The bank, one of the 15 largest in the world, is frank, pragmatic, yet humble, similar to many other large Dutch companies considering how they should tackled complex social and environmental issues around the world.

Many Dutch firms lag their British and American counterparts in issuing press releases and employing PR firms to hound journalists about their corporate social responsibility work. Most Dutch companies who are serious about the modern corporate sustainability agenda seem to prefer just to get on with the job.

Visit ING’s website and its “corporate responsibility” section, as with many other companies, is front and center on the homepage. But unusually it's easy to find some descriptions of real life ethical dilemmas the bank says it has faced, and what it did about them.

Dailah Nihot, head of sustainability at ING Bank, which makes its money from retail and wholesale banking, asset management and insurance services, doesn't seek publicity for her work, or that of the bank.

Over a modest lunch in an Amsterdam restaurant she says that “it’s for the outside world to look at ING and judge what we are doing". “Its more important for others" to tell the story, she says.

And some are doing so. Ethical ratings firms rank the bank highly in their research, and ING recently came top of a Dutch newspaper's environmental rankings.

Like many big banks, ING is very focused on employee related environmental and social initiative communications. As an organisation of 120,000 employees spread across some fifty nations, that depends entirely on human talent, it's an approach that makes sense.

Nihot says ING is focused on "internal processes and measurement", alongside employee training, alongside working with NGOs and the socially responsible investment community on their ethics concerns.

Employees react with “clear differences” in the 50 or so countries that ING works in, says Nihot, where head office strategies are left open to local interpretation. ING appears to walk it's talk, from UN initiatives to human rights policies, the company has quietly signed up to all the major ethical initiatives going.

Collaboration moves

One of the most significant has been the Equator Principles, a set of guidelines for banks related to social and environmental initiatives in project finance. Critics of the Equator Principles, such as the NGO Bank Track, say while banks like ING have made great strides in implementing them, their focus is too narrow and must be extended to cover financing extractive industry projects that cause climate change.

But Nihot is cautious about such suggestions. "The Equator Principles are a "good example" of how collaboration can work, she says, and it creates a level playing field which could indeed also be desirable for Climate Change, but "if you want the financial world to implement Climate Change related risk analysis, a price on carbon is needed". As a major advertiser in Formula One racing, ING has faced some criticism from environmentalists over climate change (see box).

ING has been reporting on business principles since 1991, and social issues since 1993, with environment following in 1994. This is longer than most other big banks. Given the quality of many reports, does corporate responsibility need to be more evidence based? It will take time to get the measurement right, she believes. “This is a very new area of focus…financial accounting has been here for decades and decades.”

Nihot says the Global Reporting Initiative has really helped companies come a long way towards better social and environmental accounting. ING is using the GRI's most stringent reporting measure, introduced just a year ago, while other banks continue to use the 2002 guidelines.

But measurement must be carefully targeted, argues Nihot. “We started out measuring a whole lot... we had piles and piles of data, we didn’t report on all of that….” looking at GRI, she says, has helped ING decide what is useful and comparable year on year to report on. As a result that company has now shifted to a much more targeted measurement system.

ING now produces two corporate responsibility reports, based on what Nihot says is "extensive research" on what readers wanted. One is what she calls the "big picture", while the second is a performance report simply made up of data.

The bank is clearly trying to target communications to specific audiences. Customers, employees, analysts "want to know what you are doing and we want to publish information in a way that suits them best", concludes Nihot. The trick for corporate ethics reporting is getting specific messages across to interested groups. ING appears to be attempting to do this with its current reporting approach.

Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Badaracco has an ethics development theory which he calls "leading quietly". This is taking consistent, small, careful steps to solve major problems. Badaracco's view is that their larger-than-life accomplishments are not as important as the sum of millions of small yet consequential decisions that men and women working in business make every day. ING, intentionally or otherwise, appears to agree.

NGO pressure points

Formula One racing: Environmentalists have suggested ING should not advertise with F1 due to its climate change impacts

White Phosfor: Anti-weapons campaigners would like ING not to make investments in companies making weapons such as Phosfor. ING says it does so only on behalf of customers and excludes all such investments from its own money

Burma: Campaigners want the company to refuse to do business with any company connected to the country, where ING closed its office in 1997. ING says this is "not feasible". Both the Burma and Phosfor are displayed clearly as ethics dilemmas on the ING website

Climate change financing: Critics such as Bank Track want banks such as ING to help create The Kiribati principles, an extension of the Equator principles into climate change related investments, such as oil, gas and mining. ING believes a carbon price may be required first.

ING’s key corporate responsibility targets

· To train some 80 per cent of teams involved in transactions and/or engagements that are subject to ING’s Environmental and Social Risk Policies on subjects including human rights.

· To be carbon neutral in 2007: 100 per cent of the electricity purchased by ING in the Netherlands comes from renewable sources.
To launch an environmental awareness programme for employees to further reduce its direct impact on the environment.

· To establish a global volunteering programme for employees.

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