Holistic sustainability: the digital bank ING

Sustainability is a mega-trend. Also for us at ING Germany, where the topic is a key part of our core strategy and extends into all areas – from climate protection to financial health, from our credit portfolio to payment functions. Our managers Laura and Jürgen provide an overview.

Sustainable business is the order of the day. Not only does the future of our planet demand it; our customers, investors and employees also exepct sustainability in their financial affairs. We have taken this to heart and made decisions accordingly. Jürgen (Head of Strategy & Business Development) and Laura (Head of Daily Banking & Payments) explain what sustainability goals we pursue as a digital bank and how we achieve them. Jürgen articulates our mission: “As a bank, we support our customers in their sustainable transformation – whether business customers or private customers. In doing so, we want to make a positive contribution to society.” The WWF Sustainability Ranking, which we participate in every two years, regularly verifies our success in this regard.

The leverage of a bank

There are a wide range of options for ING in this realm. As Jürgen puts it, “My own personal view is that we as banks have the opportunity to bring more visibility to the topic of sustainability in society. Think about how directly a person’s carbon footprint is linked to certain life phases and the corresponding purchases, such as when starting a family, buying a home or a new car.” In other words, through financing offers, a bank is involved at key points in a person’s life and should support sustainable decisions. This is also about offering guidance in a sometimes difficult-to-understand field. Laura elaborates, “We have a great responsibility as a bank, as people put a lot trust in us. In my opinion, our role is to make the issue of sustainability very transparent for our customers. We want to have an impact, and that can only be achieved on a broad scale. Otherwise, sustainability will remain a niche topic.”

Opportunities in the credit portfolio

Ecological as well as social aspects must be taken into account. “We’ve defined two particularly important topics for us at ING,” Jürgen points out. “First, the ecological topic, especially one’s carbon footprint.” For this, ING has extremely effective levers through our core business of granting credit and loans. For instance, in our credit portfolio, we are reducing our engagement with certain industries in favor of more sustainable ones. In addition, sustainable financing options are offered to our business customers, e.g. through loans linked to sustainability criteria. We have developed the so-called “Terra” approach for a more sustainable credit business. “Our ‘Terra’ approach consists of managing our credit portfolio according to the Paris Agreement as well as the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050,” Jürgen explains. “In addition, we participate in a joint ‘Climate Commitment of the German Financial Sector’.”

Sustainable financing: financial health

The second main focus for us is financial health, i.e. financial well-being – a social sustainability issue that is also obvious for a bank. Our private clients receive the necessary knowledge to keep their finances under control, for example, to prevent going too far into debt. We have already developed a number of innovations for this purpose. “We recently launched so-called Cash Snacks on our website,” Laura elaborates. “These financial tips convey financial basics to a young target group, but without preaching.” ING is already well positioned in terms of financial health, or, as Laura puts it, “We’ve always paid a lot of attention to transparency, for example, making sure that customers don’t incur any hidden fees. Our products should be as easy to understand as possible.” In addition, ING offers advice on investment forms that are more financially sustainable than traditional savings deposits. For instance, ETF savings plans are offered for monthly amounts as low as one euro – including numerous ETFs that invest according to sustainable criteria.

The enivronment is also a private matter

We put a focus on the environmental aspect for our private customers, as well. In payment transactions, it would theoretically be useful to do away with cash and even physical cards. However, Laura qualifies, “The German market is not yet ready for this.” One thing that has been implemented in her area is the “Small Change Plus” function. Laura explains how it works: “Basically, payments can be rounded up, and the difference then flows into sustainable projects. If we want to encourage sustainable behavior in people, it has to start with low-threshold offers like this.” Internal studies confirm this. “These studies show how important sustainability is to our customers, but also their reluctance to make an effort. As a bank, we should meet our customers where they are. And as a direct bank, we actually have unmediated access to them.”

From open banking to green energy

In the future, even more options will be possible. For example, through open banking, which allows third-party providers to analyze customers’ transaction data. “As a bank, I could theoretically give customers comprehensive transparency on their carbon footprint – changing their behavior,” Jürgen surmises. “Some interesting startups are already working on this.” ING is also considering the cash back platform at Dealwise. It could financially reward sustainable purchases. In the future, we also want to be able to propose sustainable alternatives for all products. We already offer loans for e-cars and advice on financing energy-efficient renovation. Together with KfW, we have developed an energy efficiency calculator for homeowners. This lets interested parties calculate their individual benefit from KfW subsidies for the various efficiency levels. Of course, ING also addresses the sustainability of our operations. As a digital bank, we have an inherent advantage here – after all, we don’t operate any physical branches with high energy requirements. “We generally have lower CO2 emissions per customer and per employee than branch banks,” Jürgen states. “We also strive to reduce our electricity consumption in as many ways as possible. We are currently discussing this for non-critical data centers, for example, which could be switched off overnight. In addition, as a digital bank, we also need less paper.” A long time ago, ING decided to run on green electricity. In the end, however, these operational contributions are less decisive compared with the sustainability potential in the credit portfolio: its volume in Germany alone is around 140 billion euros.

Initiatives on all levels

How does the organization pursue these approaches in practice? What contribution does the management make? How do the employees get involved? First of all, sustainability is a matter of leadership. Jürgen emphasizes how crucial it is that sustainability is anchored at the highest level. “We pursue our goals through agreements with the Board of Directors, also concerning money. When it comes to approving sustainable budgets, for example, or choosing to phase out certain businesses and earnings.” We have also set up a “Sustainability House” to implement the relevant key performance indicators and keep an eye on reporting obligations. Another steering instrument is the Sustainability Decision Council, which Jürgen, as the person in charge of strategy, is responsible for organizing: “This is where sustainable initiatives are presented that are brought forward by employees, for example. Decisions are made on them and board support confirmed.”

Focus on the employees

Our annual CX Days provide an opportunity to develop such ideas. It gives our employees the opportunity to present, discuss and improve on projects. Winning projects are then selected and then, if feasible, implemented. Our “Sustainability Bootcamp” is also held annually to inform and motivate our workforce. After all, sustainability is very important for our existing, and potential, employees. Laura insists, “It's vital that we take the topic very seriously as a bank.” That’s why the topic of sustainability is not seen as an isolated issue for one department, but is integrated across all operational areas. At the same time, our sustainability programs also show how important a role our individual employees play. “This is really a characteristic of ING, across all areas,” adds Jürgen. In line with our new motto “do your thing”, our employees are supported in realizing their goals – whether it's sustainability or personal development, from bike sharing to individual education budgets. Are you interested in exciting topics, dedicated support and agile working in an international group with a sustainable focus? Then explore our current career opportunities on our jobs page.

Back to top