CR Leaders: René Buholzer, Global Head Sustainability & Head Public Policy Swiss Universal Bank, Credit Suisse

Dr. René Buholzer, Managing Director, is the Global Head of Credit Suisse Sustainability and Head of Public Policy of the Swiss Universal Bank as well as Member of the Global Leadership Council of Credit Suisse.

He holds a PhD from the University of St. Gall (HSG), where he still lectures on democracy and foreign affairs. He is the author of books and publications on economic policy issues, lobbying and the Swiss-EU relations.

Furthermore, he serves as

•    President of the Board of Governors at the Swiss Institute for International Economics and Applied Economic Research, University St.  Gall
•    Member of the Supervisory Board at the Institute of Economics, University St. Gall
•    Member of the Board at the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research, University St. Gall
•    Member of the Foundation Board at Dr. Heinrich Wachter Stiftung
•    Member of the Board at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Switzerland
•    Member of the Council at the British Swiss Chamber of Commerce
•    Member of the Board at the Alumni Council of the Swiss American Foundation
•    Member of the Board of the Club Politique de Berne
•    Member of the Steering Committee of the Swiss Finance Council, Brussels


What are the drivers for sustainability at Credit Suisse as a large global financial services organisation?

There are three key aspects driving our sustainability efforts: risk management, environmental management and sustainable products & services.

Managing and addressing risks is a core competence of a bank. We have a long track record of sustainability risk management, and it is firmly embedded in our organisation. It is, in my view, an area where Credit Suisse excels, and it is as much about avoiding financial loss for our clients and ourselves as it is about protecting our reputation from any damage in the long-term. The commitment to manage environmental and social risks is strongly embedded in our Code of Conduct. The Code represents the primary formal document for our approach to sustainability, from which specific policies and processes are derived. Every employee signs the document as part of our on-boarding and contracting process.

Our environmental management performance is underpinned by our ISO14001-certified management system and by a focus on greenhouse gas neutrality, which we achieved for our operations globally in 2010.

In terms of products and services, we develop and drive them under a three-pillar Philanthropy Services & Responsible Investment Framework. This area represents a key business opportunity, and we thus want to grow and expand in this field, starting from a strong base in philanthropy services and impact investing.

The financial services sector has experienced a lot of reputation damage in the last years. How can the industry as a whole rebuild trust?

Indeed, our entire industry sector has to re-earn trust and credibility; we have to rebuild our reputation, not least through sustainable actions. I believe the sector has come a long way following the global financial crisis.

Transparency and disclosure are critical to rebuilding credibility. We must communicate better, as a sector, on what our role in the economy and society is, and on how we add value. By communicating with our stakeholders about key topics, we gain a better understanding of their different views and perspectives. This, in turn, enables us to actively address important issues and challenges, to report on them transparently and thus – hopefully – to restore trust. For our Corporate Responsibility Report, for example, we annually conduct a materiality assessment that helps us identify the issues that are key to our stakeholders. Over the last three years, financial system stability was among the top-ranked issues. We understand that we need to stress even further that the big banks, and Credit Suisse in particular, today are very different from the way they were before the crisis. We have significantly reduced risk exposure and strengthened our capital base, and we have decided to lay a stronger regional focus. Switzerland and other countries have also continued to implement regulatory reforms in order to strengthen the stability and integrity of the financial system.

In your Corporate Responsibility Report you state “Companies can only achieve long-term success if they operate in an economically stable and socially cohesive environment”. What has Credit Suisse done to contribute to this environment and how have these measures benefited the business?

Credit Suisse contributes to an economically stable and socially cohesive environment through a broad range of activities. The most important ones can be grouped into the following four areas:

  1. Credit Suisse’s core role as a financial intermediary:
    As a bank we have two elementary functions: matching lenders with borrowers and transferring risks. These basic services provide the backbone of our economic system.
  2. Credit Suisse as an employer:
    As a large organisation, Credit Suisse is an important employer. Specifically in our core markets, we contribute to training people beginning with apprenticeships and maintaining high levels of training and development opportunities throughout for all our employees.
  3. Credit Suisse investing in and engaging with the societies we operate in:
    We regard microfinance and education as effective means for driving inclusive growth. Through our initiatives in these areas we also support the realization of internationally recognized development goals in emerging and developing countries. To this end Credit Suisse has established partnerships with credible institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
  4. Credit Suisse as a taxpayer:
    Through our local presence in various countries, we make important contributions to the local tax base. Over the past five years, Credit Suisse has paid an annual average of CHF 0.8 billion in corporate income tax world-wide. The bank is also subject to other taxes that are not related to income, which totalled around CHF 0.4 billion in 2014 alone.

How do you think the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will shape the sustainability agenda for banks?

Credit Suisse welcomes the adoption of the SDGs. They are a comprehensive framework with 17 goals and 169 supporting targets. This high number obviously brings certain challenges in communicating about them. Yet, we hope that they will help to establish a recognised common language and framework to discuss, address and report on the key sustainable development issues we face globally. This framework not only applies to the corporate world, but equally to NGOs and governmental agencies and should help to increase accountability and transparency for all stakeholders.

In our publication “Aiming for Impact: Credit Suisse and the Sustainable Development Goals” we have outlined our approach and our contribution to the SDGs. We were one of the first companies to do this. However, we recognise that the SDGs relate to an evolving challenge and Credit Suisse will need to keep adjusting and improving its activities to optimise the bank’s positive impact on these goals.

Credit Suisse is a member of a number of international and sector initiatives on sustainability. For example, the Thun Group of Banks provides a sector-specific interpretation of the UN’s “’Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework” and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Do you believe that such initiatives can bring about real change?

Our active role in the Thun Group of Banks has helped us significantly in implementing and operationalising the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Other sector involvement has supported the effective implementation of global frameworks such as the Equator Principles and the World Bank Guidelines in our products and transactions. Working actively in such initiatives and talking with peers has had a direct influence on our processes and decisions. By taking related considerations into account more systematically and discussing them with our clients, we can contribute to better human rights outcomes.

You’ve recently put an increased emphasis on stakeholder engagement at Credit Suisse, how has this brought value to the organisation?

Stakeholder engagement helps Credit Suisse in three areas: (i) building strong, sustainable relationships and understanding stakeholders’ issues, (ii) feeding this input into our corporate strategy, thought leadership and products – as we have done with microfinance and conservation finance,  and (iii) enabling Credit Suisse to be a respected organisation in society and safeguarding its reputation.

All these engagements help us to better understand the needs and concerns of our stakeholders. This informs our strategy, which is crucial in order to respond adequately and adapt to a dynamic market environment. In the narrower sense, this helps us in the development of products, for instance mainstreaming sustainability considerations in investment products. In the broader sense, it enables Credit Suisse to forge coalitions of the willing to tackle global challenges as outlined in the SDGs.

Our annual Credit Suisse Barometers – the Swiss Worry Barometer and the international Youth Barometer are another example of how we engage with society at large on issues well beyond our core business.

What is your vision and what are your main goals in your role as Global Head Sustainability & Head Public Policy Swiss Universal Bank at Credit Suisse?

In essence, our main goal is to establish and maintain strong stakeholder relationships and to protect and promote the interests and reputation of the bank. Earlier on in the interview, I explained our three main drivers for sustainability and how we respond to them. My goal is to ensure that we continue our journey in this direction.

Naturally, we have to keep developing effective and efficient processes for our day-to-day business. At the same time, we need to identify emerging challenges and opportunities and find suitable solutions to take sustainability beyond being a niche topic.

To achieve this, we need to collaborate actively with key players and stakeholders. Conservation finance would be such an example. In a recent study on conservation finance, co-authored by Credit Suisse, WWF and McKinsey, we note that a significantly larger amount of capital investment than is currently being allocated to conservation is required in order to preserve the health of natural ecosystems. And we argue that private equity may be the main source of additional investments.

What has been your biggest learning to date in your current role as Head of Public Policy and Sustainability?

For me, it’s important not to lose courage to push forward and seek continuous improvement. It’s key to keep the long-term vision in mind and concentrate on taking pragmatic and small steps in the right direction.

Sometimes I have the impression we are not moving fast enough, but when I then look back, I am amazed by how much we have achieved. We have had to show perseverance in our sustainability journey and go our own way step by step, often overcoming challenges along the way. As an analogy, my learning may be summed up by quoting German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”