Founded in 1972 following the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was conceived to monitor the state of the environment, inform policy making with science, and coordinate responses to the world’s environmental challenges.

Over the years, UNEP has worked closely with industry in developing environmental management strategies. It started working with forward-looking organisations in the financial services sector at the beginning of the 1990s, convinced that the financial sector had a valuable contribution to make in protecting the environment while maintaining the health and profitability of their businesses.


Launching the UNEP Finance Initiative

In May 1992, in the run up to the Rio Summit that year, a small group of banks, including Deutsche Bank, HSBC Holdings, Natwest, Royal Bank of Canada, and Westpac developed the UNEP Statement by Banks on the Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Banking Initiative was formed.

This Initiative, which operated under the auspices of UNEP, engaged a broad range of financial institutions, including commercial banks, investment banks, venture capitalists, asset managers, and multi-lateral development banks and agencies which promoted the integration of environmental considerations into all aspects of the financial sector’s operations and services.

Engaging insurers and reinsurers

In 1995, UNEP joined forces with a group of leading insurance and reinsurance companies, including General Accident, Gerling Global Re, National Provident, Storebrand, Sumitomo Marine & Fire, Swiss Re, as well as pension funds, to launch the UNEP Statement of Environmental Commitment by the Insurance Industry. In this voluntary commitment, signatory companies pledged to achieve a balance of economic development, the welfare of people and a sound environment.

Building the initiative

From 1999 the two groups of banks and insurers began to work together on issues of mutual interest, and in 2003, the two groups merged to form the UNEP Finance Initiative. Then, in 2012, UNEP FI and a group of insurance companies took the first steps in anchoring sustainability at the heart of their business strategies when they developed the Principles for Sustainable Insurance, the first global framework for the insurance industry to address environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities. The development of the Principles led to the largest collaborative initiative between the UN and the insurance industry—the PSI Initiative. Over 200 organisations worldwide have adopted the four Principles for Sustainable Insurance, including insurers representing more than 25% of world premium volume and USD 14 trillion in assets under management.

In 2019, a coalition of 132 banks convened by UNEP FI developed the first global sustainability framework for the banking industry when they launched the Principles for Responsible Banking. The six guiding principles help signatory banks ensure their strategy and practice align with the vision society has set out for its future in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement and bring purpose, vision and ambition to sustainable finance. Signatories commit to embedding the principles across all business areas, at the strategic, portfolio and transactional levels. With the development of principles for the insurance and banking industry in addition to the Principles for Responsible Investment, sustainability blueprints now exist for all sectors of the finance industry.

To fast-track financial institutions’ action on decarbonising the global economy, UNEP FI has convened coalitions of actors from across the financial sector – investors, banks, and re/insurers. 2019 saw the launch of the UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance in partnership with the PRI; in April 2021 UNEP FI launched the Net-Zero Banking Alliance, and the Net-Zero Insurance Alliance was born in July 2021. The member-led alliances unite financial institutions who have committed to achieving net-zero GHG emissions in their portfolios by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement; the members collaborate in working groups to jointly develop tools and guidance.

Adapting to best serve the finance industry

For many years, UNEP FI’s membership comprised investors and asset managers who worked with UNEP FI on influential initiatives such as the Property Working Group, as well as publishing landmark reports including the “Freshfields Report” regarded as the first major step in mainstreaming responsible investment.

To accelerate leadership in responsible investment and better serve the investment community and the financial industry at large, in 2021, UNEP FI and our sister organisation the Principles for Responsible Investment established a joint initiative, the Investment Leadership Programme (ILP), and merged UNEP FI’s investment membership with PRI’s. The platform brings together small groups of leading responsible investors to work on initiatives that are considered to be leading best-practice. Investors continue to have to access to ILP leadership projects and initiatives through their membership of the PRI. Through this collaborative programme, leading investors continue to engage with UNEP FI’s network of banks and insurers and continue to work with others to catalyse change across the entire finance industry.

Engaging corporate leadership, driving ambition

To further mobilise the financial community to support a sustainable, resilient and inclusive economy and ensure that sustainability is considered at the highest level of corporations, in 2021, UNEP FI formed the Leadership Council. The body comprises CEOs and Chairpersons of banks and insurers currently represented on one of the three elected UNEP FI governance bodies; the Global Steering Committee, the board of the Principles for Responsible Banking or the board of the Principles for Sustainable Insurance. Chaired by the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, the UNEP FI Leadership Council meets annually to provide vision and strategic direction to UNEP FI in orienting its role and that of the UN, in shaping, mainstreaming and deepening sustainability integration across the industry.

Find out more about the evolution of sustainable finance and UNEP FI’s role in that journey by navigating our interactive timeline below: