Bank goes green to save green

Published 7:18 am Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One local business paraded Smart Cars around town Monday in promotion of a trend — not in the auto industry — but rather, in banking.

Representatives for Sterling State Bank, 1419 First Ave. S.W., drove the fuel-efficient, eco-friendly mini-cars to call attention to the bank’s green efforts. The Minnesota company, founded in Austin, launched “Green Banking” Sept. 14. The new checking accounts are similar in every way to the traditional except that there are no paper banking statements — and no checks.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, the Austin branch opened five green accounts, customers of which leave the bank with a debit card and no checkbook. Green checking is offered at each of Sterling State Bank’s 10 Minnesota branches.

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“We expect this pro-environment approach to be very popular,” Barry Iverson, president of the Austin branch, said.

The paper-free option is more than environmentally sound. Iverson said those five new accounts mean the bank will print and mail 60 less statements this year. The bank is happy to lighten, along with their carbon footprint, the costs of customized printed checkbooks, pre-printed envelopes, letterhead, stuffing and postage.

Iverson was not able to report how much money this program is expected to save the bank by press time.

The main purpose of green checking is to minimize the bank’s environmental impact and to cater to eco-conscious clients, Iverson said.

Other Austin banks have earth-friendly options too. Most area banks offer customers free online banking and bill pay and an option to skip paper statements. Community Bank, which has Austin locations at 900 18th Ave. N.W. and in the Hy-Vee, encourages their customers to use all forms of electronic banking not only to be eco-kind, but also user-friendly said vice president and branch manager Steve Leif. For example, Leif said he advises the elderly to sign up for the hassle-free direct deposit of their Social Security checks.

US Bank representative Jennifer Wendt said they have many customers who make electronic payments only, with free online bill pay and check cards. There is a US Bank branch at 301 North Main St.

In addition, U.S. Bank offers a Green Auto Loan program, which rewards reduced rates for new or used EPA-certified green vehicles. The bank is also a founding member of the Pay It Green Alliance, which is focused on educating consumers and businesses about reducing environmental impact by promoting electronic payments, statements and billing.

Wells Fargo Austin branch manager Tracey Beaver said paper checks are optional with new accounts at the branch on 501 N. Main St. and customers are prompted to sign up for online statements every time they sign into online banking. Among Wells Fargo’s environmental initiatives is the design of their banks. All new construction banking stores are built to be structurally green. As a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Leaders program, the company is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all operations.

Going green by cutting printing and direct mailing or billing, and thus costs, seems to be a trend for many types of businesses. As an incentive to use automatic monthly electronic payments to repay federal student loans, the government’s Direct Loan Program offers a quarter point interest rate reduction.

Other companies, instead of offering benefits to those who pay electronically, are showing signs they may punish those who do not. Wireless provider T-Mobile USA announced in August a plan to begin charging customers $1.50 per month to receive a paper copy of their bill by mail. After public disapproval, and a filed lawsuit, T-Mobile posted on its web page that they are dropping the plan for now. Previously, before deciding to charge customers for paper billing, and subsequently taking back the decision, T-Mobile promoted “Green Accounts” and “Green Perks” and offered to plant a tree for every customer who signed up for paperless billing.

More information about Sterling State Bank’s eco-banking options can be found at