Nearly 75 years ago—in October 1946—Vancity was officially designated as an open-bond credit union. Since that time, there has been a remarkable list of Vancity “firsts” in the financial-services sector.
It was the first financial institution to offer mortgages to women without a male cosigner. It was the first with a daily-interest savings account and a socially responsible mutual fund. Among financial institutions, it launched the whole concept of registered education savings plans. Then, in 2003, foreshadowing its growing interest in sustainability, it became the first to offer preferred rates for those who bought low-carbon-emission vehicles.
On January 18, the Vancity board appointed Christine Bergeron as president and CEO after she had been filling the role on an interim basis since Tamara Vrooman left last year. And Bergeron, a longtime advocate for sustainable finance, is planning to implement one of the credit union’s most audacious measures in its history.
She’s hoping to make the entire loan portfolio carbon-neutral by 2040. To reach net-zero-emissions is an astonishing goal when you consider that its loans and advances to members totalled almost $20 billion in its 2019 annual report. Vancity currently has $28.2 billion in assets plus assets under management, as well as 543,000 members, making it the largest community credit union in Canada.
“We’ve been leaders, of course, with our own operations for many years,” Bergeron tells the Straight by phone. “But we also needed to do more with respect to what we finance and our actual portfolio. So we did put forward our commitments toward net zero by 2040 for all of our mortgages and loans.”
For those unfamiliar with high finance, it’s not unprecedented for companies to strive to be carbon-neutral in their operations. Vancity was the first to do this among Canadian financial institutions several years ago. Nowadays, many organizations laud this as a standard, even if the products they ship or the business they’re in is highly polluting.
As an example, TC Energy tried to win political support for the $10-billion Keystone XL pipeline by promising it would be carbon-neutral with its operations. However, the 830,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen being mined, shipped through the pipeline, and later refined and burned would exceed, each year, the annual output of carbon dioxide emissions from all of British Columbia. That’s why this project was killed by the new U.S. president, Joe Biden.
It’s something altogether different to make a loan portfolio carbon-neutral, especially if you’re in the business of financing the purchase of buildings, which were responsible for 26 percent of Metro Vancouver’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019. Transportation sources accounted for another 35 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in the region that year, according to Metro Vancouver.
“Basically, the carbon that gets emitted—from anything we finance—we want to work to eliminate and significantly reduce that,” Bergeron explains.
Buildings pose a big challenge
That will likely mean financing a much larger percentage of zero-emission vehicles and retrofits to existing homes and other buildings to reduce emissions. It could conceivably entail much greater use of carbon offsets to achieve this goal.
“We really have been trying to be clear that it’s really not about what others are trying to do,” the Vancity CEO emphasizes. “We’re not really trying to compete in that sense. It really is more about putting this forward to challenge all of us together.”
That includes governments, businesses, and the community.
“How do we collectively think about shifting to a future that is cleaner and, ultimately for us, also fairer?” she adds. “We know it’s going to be difficult, so we’re not naive to the work that’s required to get there.”
Bergeron readily acknowledges that it’s very difficult to decarbonize commercial buildings. But she sees this as critically important for future generations. As a mother of eight- and 10-year-old sons, she is highly conscious that the choices she makes as a CEO can have a profound impact on their future.
“So we’re on a path to work with others to think through how do we do this,” Bergeron says. “And how do we give the tools to our members—who are the ones buying a home or building a building—to do that in a way that’s more sustainable? So whether it’s retrofits, whether it’s about thinking about other resources, or financial products that really help people reduce the emissions from their homes and commercial buildings: that’s the work ahead.”
How did Bergeron become such an environmental keener? It wasn’t the result of some epiphany emerging from a long walk in the woods, though she does admit to a love of cycling and cross-country skiing. It came more as a result of nuts-and-bolts business.
Back in 2001, she was a founding team member of Vancouver-based Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, as well as its vice president of investments. It was initially focused on fuel-cell technology before it later broadened its interest into cleantech. The firm looked at companies from around the world, and she discovered that even though certain organizations—like a solar-power outfit, for example—might have been doing great things for the environment, they may not have been treating their employees well.
“So for me it really became this broader view of the social elements as well as the environmental elements,” Bergeron says, “and how do you think about business in that broader sense for the purpose and the positives that they can contribute to society?”
Investing with impact
Almost a decade ago she joined Vancity, first to help build out an impact investment fund. According to her, the credit union was looking to make direct equity investments to generate positive outcomes in businesses.
From there, she rose up the ladder by becoming the director of community business for a couple of years; then the vice president of impact investing, wealth management, and community real estate for just over a year; and then chief member-services officer and senior vice president of member experience and community engagement.
Along the way, she taught some courses at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Bergeron says she loves teaching because it keeps her humble. That’s because students ask questions that often bring matters down to the basics.
“When you don’t know a subject really, really well, it’s easy, actually, to stay higher level and much harder to make it very simple, right?” she declares. “So their energy and enthusiasm for the future would give me an equal amount of energy.
“These days, you have MBAs with a focus on sustainability,” the CEO continues. “You’ve got courses on all these subjects. That was not the case 20, 25 years ago.”
Sometimes, CEOs of financial institutions can come across as reserved, buttoned-down, and very conservative. Although Bergeron can keep up with them on financial issues (just ask her what she’s doing as the North American board member on the United Nations Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative), she’s also refreshingly down to earth.
This was clear when she recalls discussing with her husband and sons last year whether she should take the Vancity CEO job on an interim basis.
“It was a big commitment, obviously, for all of us,” Bergeron says. “And so I told my kids that we’d check in if they saw me enough and if they thought I was around for dinner enough.
“I think my oldest is quite proud,” she adds. “Meanwhile, I think they also like to go play tag at night and ensure I’m perpetually ‘it’.”