We recently spoke to Robert Spruijt, Head of Sustainable Finance EMEA, ING in the latest in our series of interviews with professionals from different departments of banks.

ING is a leading European universal bank with more than 60,000 employees serving around 37 million customers, corporate clients, and financial institutions in over 40 countries. Robert leads a team in ING’s wholesale banking division.


Tell us about your role and what a typical day looks like for you.

To be honest, there is not really a typical day in my role!

I head ING’s Sustainable Finance team for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, a team of 36 professionals across the region who focus on supporting ING clients to translate their sustainability strategy into their financing.

Where, in the past, sustainability was a side business for many companies, it is now a license to operate. Regulatory requirements on risk management and disclosure are increasing by the day and the sustainable finance market is developing rapidly. This makes the work we do way more interesting and impactful but also way more complex. To win mandates, we have to go the extra mile every time, which keeps us on our toes and requires us to constantly focus on business development.

As a result of all these changes, my role has also evolved over time. One day can start with discussing a sustainable finance strategy in a country, assessing a transaction that deviates from the market standards, or working with the team on our client transition plan project. But in other weeks, I could visit a specific region to speak at events and meet clients.


What skills do you need in your job?

My team combines sustainability experts with strong sector and structured finance bankers. This ensures that the team fully understands the banking products but also brings the sustainability difference to our clients. Clients are evolving in their sustainability journey, so we have to take a forward-looking approach to ensure we bring relevant market insights to them and keep developing the right solutions for them.

In terms of skill sets, I would say the people in our team combine being very analytical, entrepreneurial, and commercial. This means they are able to bring in-depth analysis to clients, can identify what is relevant for a client, and are constantly pushing to see how we can differentiate our offering to our clients.


What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

I enjoy working together with a dedicated, smart, and fun team that wants to make a difference for our clients while always seeking to have a positive impact. ING has brought sustainability to the core of its strategy, which makes it a very inspiring environment to work in, as everyone is working towards the same objectives. This really makes me tick!

As for what frustrates me, I find it challenging if clients want to use sustainable finance solutions just to boost their green credentials. It is good that the market is tightening to ensure it becomes more focussed on real impact through taxonomies, standards, regulation, and principles.

“We assessed the transition plans of most of our carbon-intensive clients to get a better forward-looking understanding of how they are planning to transition to net zero. It provides insights into the targets and actions clients have defined and how they have integrated them in their business strategy.”

Tell us about some of INGs climate-related goals? Which KPIs are most useful to measure success?

In 2018, we rolled out our Terra approach to measure how each of the nine most carbon-intensive sectors of our portfolio is progressing against its sector-specific science-based trajectory to contribute to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As part of this approach, from this year onwards, we will also set annual targets. We are also increasing the scope of Terra by including more subsectors.

We also have sustainable finance goals. In 2022, we committed to mobilise EUR125 billion of sustainable financing every year by 2025 to support our wholesale banking clients in their transition to more sustainable business models.

In December 2023, we announced that we aim to triple our financing for renewable energy power generation by 2025 and will phase out the financing of upstream oil and gas activities by 2040.


What is your biggest recent climate-related professional achievement?

The roll-out of the client transition plan project within ING. We assessed the transition plans of most of our carbon-intensive clients to get a better forward-looking understanding of how they are planning to transition to net zero. It provides insights into the targets and actions clients have defined and how they have integrated them in their business strategy and adds a forward-looking element to the Terra approach.

To do this we compared relevant global benchmarks such as the European Sustainability Reporting Standards, Transition Plan Taskforce, International Sustainability Standards Board, US Securities and Exchange Commission, and CDP. We then took out the most relevant common denominators for a credible transition plan, collected publicly disclosed client data related to these denominators, and integrated it in a web-based application that we use in our decision-making processes.

For clients facing high transition risks, transition plans are crucial. In cases where clients do not have a transition plan or it contains limited information, we engage to better understand their strategy. If a client is unable or unwilling to come up with a credible transition plan, we might decide to change our risk appetite for such a client. If a client has a good plan or is developing one, we seek to support them by providing financial advice or financing solutions for the required investments.


What challenges did you face in achieving it?

We had to build the tool from scratch and had to roll it out across the globe. To ensure we met the regulatory compliance requirements in each country, we had to jump through many approval hoops that made it challenging to roll out such a big project in a short period.


What advice would you offer to banks that are trying to do something similar?

Regulators increasingly require banks to obtain information related to climate and social risks from clients. If other banks try something similar, I recommend gathering public information. This information is more credible since it is published by the company in the public domain, and using it also helps to avoid clients being bombarded with similar data requests from different banks.

We certainly found building a data tool to be a valuable exercise. It supports analysis, means you can use the information across the globe, and it makes it easier to compare information over years.


What climate-related reading or listening that you would recommend for insight or inspiration?

The sustainable finance market is evolving so rapidly that there is a lot of information and many publications coming out all the time. Information overload and even sustainability burn out exist and you must be very focussed on what you read to avoid this!

First, it is very useful to track what regulators are publishing. Their publications give a good overview of what has been planned and what is in development. Then it is good to follow the standard setters like the International Capital Market Association, Loan Market Association, and Climate Bonds Initiative. Publications from NZBA and the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures are useful to read.

It is also important to get an understanding of the disclosure requirements that are relevant for your country and region. For me, this includes reading up on frameworks such as the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and taxonomy for sustainable activities, and the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB).

I realise this requires some serious studying, but it paves the way to build your knowledge on sustainable finance and broader sustainability topics.


What climate-related issues are front of mind for you right now?

I am concerned that it is not clear enough how we will get to a sustainable society by 2050. We see governments and companies committing to net zero across the globe and targets being set, but do we have a full understanding of everything that is required to transition different sectors of the economy? In some areas, for example, the grid cannot cope with the increased amount of renewable energy available, or the charging of cars is restricted due to limited grid capacity. Elsewhere, investments in new technologies are stalled because incentives are lacking.

Understanding what is required to get to net zero and creating the relevant incentives to allow the system to change is crucial. Renewable energy is a good example of this. Initially, subsidy schemes boosted the development of projects, which drove the capex price down. As a result, most new renewables projects no longer require any subsidies.

In my opinion, governments should be required to publish scenarios of what net zero would look like for their specific country or region and then plot this back to the current state as a starting point. This would make it much clearer what needs to happen throughout the entire system to reach those goals and what incentives are required to enable the necessary investments.


What do you wish people better understood about your role in addressing the climate crisis?

That the transition cannot take place overnight. Our economic system has been built on resource depletion and mass production and so a true system change is required. Banks are the funders of the real economy, so can play an important role in the transition but we cannot do it alone. To have an orderly transition, policymakers, regulators, and companies all need to follow an appropriate sector-based, science-based approach to decarbonise high-emitting industries all while addressing the other environmental and social risks we are facing in society.


What inspires you to work on climate?

Personally, I get the most satisfaction and inspiration from seeing how we work with our clients to strengthen their businesses in ways that reduce their climate impact.

One memorable moment came in a recent conversation with the treasurer of a big client after we had completed a very sizeable sustainability linked loan that connects their sustainability targets to their financing costs. He said to me, “Robert, I did not expect that such financing would have such a significant impact on our company. I see that not only our finance team is busy with it, but all our factories, our operations and management teams are working on it to properly integrate the agreed targets in our business strategy.” For me, this conversation demonstrated the relevance of our work and confirmed that the finance market has an important role to play to support clients in their transition journey.


The Net-Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA) is a group of leading global banks committed to financing ambitious climate action to transition the real economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It is the climate accelerator for UNEP FI’s Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB) and the sector-specific alliance for banks under the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). Is your bank interested in joining? Find out more here.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of their employer companies and affiliate companies, NZBA, PRB, or UNEP FI.