Not promising the earth, ethical banks win custom

Wed Nov 19, 2008 9:11pm EST
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By Ingrid Melander and Lorraine Turner

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - As the financial crisis hit a climax in Belgium with the split-up of its largest bank Fortis in October, new clients were rushing to a small, "ecologically correct" bank.

Triodos -- investing not in derivatives but in tangible products such as wind turbines which the general public can understand and even applaud -- was not the only alternative institution to benefit in Europe.

Around the world, the mainstream financial sector and its banks are facing flak for having crafted the mind-numbingly complex financial products that helped set off the worst financial crisis in 80 years.

Besides Triodos, Britain's Ecology Building Society and the Co-operative Bank say they are net beneficiaries, with some analysts arguing they are building a more trustworthy franchise even though the returns they offer depositors are modest.

"The big banks speculate on money which, at the end of the day, I don't know whether they have or not but it's got nothing to do with reality," said 58-year-old Michele Bellay.

Interviewed outside a Fortis branch in central Brussels, she said she would be willing to switch to an "ethical bank" rather than a High Street one: "It corresponds to the real economy, ... to what people live every day."

An average of 60 new accounts a day were opened in the Belgian branch of Triodos in October -- five times the usual figure, its managing director Oliver Marquet said.

The bank, with headquarters in the Netherlands and branches in Spain and Britain, says it invests only in green, social and cultural projects, such as wind turbines and medical centers.   Continued...

<p>An employee walks inside ethical bank Triodos in Brussels, October 31, 2008. REUTERS/Thierry Roge</p>