Green.org sat down with Kirby Brendsel, Vice President, ESG & Sustainability Director of Flagstar Bank, to learn about Environment, Social, and Governance. ESG is used to represent data designed for investors to evaluate risk and growth opportunities. ESG was established by the United Nations and has grown prominently in recent years. Flagstar Bank is emphasizing ESG by supporting communities, promoting strong ethical culture, as well as setting goals to build a sustainable business.
Kirby, thank you for being here. Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
I’m a military brat who was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, and went to William and Mary on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating, I joined the Army where I did a stint in military intelligence—and yes, I was in the desert with tanks. The Army taught me a huge respect for the environment, and it taught me the meaning and value of diversity, well before diversity, equity, and inclusion had become part of our collective conscience.
My next stop was Rice University and an MBA, and then a job with Deloitte Consulting in Houston where I focused on energy and climate change. Deloitte put me in their management development program, and ultimately, I helped launch their federal sustainability practice and stand up their DEI initiatives. I was hooked. Later, at Nuveen, I learned how investors look at ESG in my role as director of responsible investing, and then I got my first bank experience as VP of corporate strategic initiatives at Synchrony Financial.
I also held jobs in sustainability and ESG at Starwood Hotel & Resorts Worldwide, and just before coming to Flagstar, at Welltower, where I saw firsthand how ESG can fit into a company that has large real estate holdings. What intrigued me about joining the team at Flagstar was the opportunity and freedom to make an impact both in and beyond the bank. ESG and sustainability allow Flagstar to give back and make a difference. That’s always been something near and dear to my heart, regardless of where I have been both personally and professionally. I was especially interested in working at a financial institution, like Flagstar, because of the opportunities to provide financial products to help low- to moderate-income consumers who are trying to get ahead, and Flagstar is huge in home lending. That, coupled with my love for sustainability, made this role the perfect fit for me.
What is a fun fact about you?
Serious Fact I’m addicted to plogging, the great word the Swedes came up with to describe someone who picks up trash and litter while jogging. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years and can’t be cured.
Or Fun Fact I belong to the best mom and dad garage rock band in Weston, Connecticut. It’s called The Shed, and I play the keys, but do a passable harmonica as well, which I learned during the pandemic. We’re already back in rehearsal at Shed Studios—our lead singer’s garage, working on the set list for our next gig.
Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?
We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change today, and it is anticipated that they’ll become more pronounced going forward. We all must do what we can to become more sustainable and environmentally focused to truly make a difference.
I like to think of sustainability and ESG through the lens of the triple bottom line of people, planet, and last—but definitely not least—performance. A focus on sustainability not only makes companies more efficient, saves costs, and mitigates risk, but it can also help them uncover fresh opportunities to engage with our customers, investors, and communities.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
First, sustainability and ESG will continue to evolve—it’s not stayed still since I first got into it. Not even the name of field is the same as it was 10 years ago. Second, the focus on sustainability will only increase, whether because of more regulatory requirements, or environmental, or geopolitical issues, or just more interest in the field, sustainability is not going away any time soon. Third, data will be king. How much data is used, how it’s used and the attention paid to it will continue its upward trajectory. Sound strategic and pragmatic decisions around sustainability and ESG need to be based on data—not on emotions, or catchwords, or other reasons that are flash in the pan.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
Keep in mind that small actions can make a big impact. When you think about sustainability, think reduce, reuse, and recycle. And for old food and food scraps, there’s another R, let them rot, that is, compost. Dial down and layer up; give it away instead of throwing it away; brown bag instead of plastic bag, email instead of snail mail; scan instead of print. Opportunities abound in daily life.