Wenyan Wang, a former Rising Sun energy specialist, installs an energy-efficient light bulb during a house call. Credit: Rising Sun

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Sponsored by Beneficial State Bank.

For a brief moment in April of this year—just four seconds long—California’s main grid was 94.5% powered by renewable energy. While fleeting, it was a major milestone in our state’s journey toward 100% clean energy, a goal that is now being replicated at the national level by the Biden Administration. But this progress is only sustainable if we tap into another source of power: our banking system.

Too many large banks pay lip service to social and environmental causes, but continue to use their depositors’ money to fund injustice and greenhouse gases—whether it be mass incarceration, payday lenders, or fossil fuels. In fact, fossil-fuel financing is on the rise. According to the Rainforest Action Network, “In the five years since the Paris Agreement, the world’s 60 biggest banks have financed fossil fuels to the tune of $3.8 trillion.” This, despite increasing evidence that fossil fuel processing produces huge levels of carbon emissions; pollutes the air, water, and soil; and can lead to serious health impacts.

In other words, your hard-earned money may be bringing real harm to your community. If you’re tired of funding a broken financial system, there’s something you can do about it. Values-based banks—of which there are many—prove that a bank can generate positive social and environmental impact while remaining financially sustainable. At Beneficial State Bank, headquartered in Oakland, we believe banks and investors collectively have immense power to guide our resource use. That’s why we choose to fund only clean, renewable energy and refuse to fund extractive and dirty energy sources like coal, oil, gas, and other activities that contribute to climate change.

Investing in the environment and local jobs

Here in Oakland, that means financing innovators who are making our communities greener. For example, the nonprofit Rising Sun Center for Opportunity has been operating in nine Bay Area counties and San Joaquin County since 1994. Its mission is to build career pathways that support economic equity and climate resilience. Rising Sun trains local youth and low-income adults for careers in the burgeoning green construction and renewable energy sectors. This model not only leads to cleaner, greener neighborhoods in the Bay Area and the Central Valley, it also unlocks incomes and opportunities for our neighbors.

Rising Sun understands how beneficial banking can align with its values. “When deciding to bank with Beneficial State Bank, we had a conversation with our staff and board,” said Julia Hatton, president and CEO of Rising Sun. “‘Let’s put our money where our values are.’ There are multiple ways to invest in the community that you’re in — there’s the direct services we provide, the programs we run, but there’s also where we put our money and how our money supports our communities.”

As consumers, it’s vital to understand that where you put your money matters. That includes not only divesting from environmentally harmful industries, but also actively channeling money into environmentally friendly investments. Here are three steps to take:

  1. Educate yourself on how banks use your money. If you already have a bank, you can check its website or ask where the bank invests your money and how it actively supports local communities. Good sources of information include: Mighty Deposits, Green America, and Rainforest Action Network.
  2. Select a bank that invests in doing good. Values-based banks demonstrate that a bank can generate positive social and environmental impact while remaining financially sustainable.
  3. Encourage friends and family to put their money to good use. Let them know that where they bank matters — their money can be used to help, or harm. Beneficial State has resources here, and Stop the Money Pipeline has a useful checklist, as well.

California can lead the way toward 100% renewable energy in the United States — and we’re all a critical part of that movement. If we bank with passion and purpose, we can make sure the financial system actively benefits our neighborhoods, our country, and the planet that sustains us.