I’ve heard that some credit unions now focus on environmentally responsible lending. Is this a trend?

I’ve heard that some credit unions now focus on environmentally responsible lending. Is this a trend?

—Davis Priest, Davenport, IA

Credit unions have existed in the United States now for more than a century. Unlike banks, they are non-profit institutions and were originally formed to serve groups that share a common bond—such as a place of employment, residence, or membership in a labor union—by providing loans and other financial services from the combined savings of members (who are also shareholders) at reasonable rates.

In recent years many existing credit unions have begun to shift some of their investment focus toward socially- and environmentally-responsible and sustainable development projects. Still others have sprung up new with specifically that mission in mind.

North Carolina”s Self-Help Credit Union, founded in 1980, is a good example. It factors environmental considerations into its loan approval process and seeks to create ownership and other economic opportunities for minorities, women, rural residents and low-income families. And its Sustainable Development Lending Initiative lends to businesses and organizations that focus on conservation, recycling and “smart growth” (land development projects that preserve open space and farmland and that minimize dependence on auto transportation).

So far, Self-Help”s program has provided nearly 200 loans totaling $25 million to a wide range of environmentally driven enterprises including organic farms, recycling businesses and “eco-tourism” operators. “We are undoubtedly the biggest lender to environmentally oriented companies in North Carolina,” says Malcolm White, Self-Help”s communications director.

Elsewhere, New Mexico”s Permaculture Credit Union has a Sustainability Discount Program that provides low interest rate loans for home energy efficiency upgrades, renewable energy retrofits and green-friendly landscaping projects. The program also discounts its loans for the purchase of fuel-efficient automobiles that achieve 35 miles per gallon average or better.

And down under in Australia, the Maleny Credit Union has a Micro-Savings Fund that provides no-interest loans for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and retrofit energy systems with specific pollution-reduction technologies. It also gives up to 10 percent of its pre-tax earnings back to the local community in the form of grants.

Finding socially responsible credit unions in your own state or region is as easy as steering a web browser to the CU Match-up website, a project of the California League of Credit Unions. By entering your state and a few other bits of information into a simple web-based form, the database returns a list with contact information for nearby credit unions or credit union associations in that state.

CONTACTS: Self-Help Credit Union, (800) 966-7353, www.self-help.org ; Permaculture Credit Union, (866) 954-3479, www.pcuonline.org ; CU Match-up, www.howtojoinacu.org .