We test whether firm sustainability positively affects access to bank credit. We carry out a panel data analysis of 125 listed Italian SMEs across 14 regions over 2017–2021. A quantitative score comprising 20 items grouped into three areas, disclosure, processes, and governance, is computed to determine the level of implementation of sustainable practices of sampled SMEs. Results show that SMEs with more sustainable orientation have greater access to bank credit and better ability to pay the cost of bank debt. This, in turn, reinforces bank-SME relationships. We contribute to the literature on SMEs, highlighting the relationship between sustainability and the availability of bank loans.
Starting from the notions of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report published by the World Commission on the Environment in 1987 (WCED, 1987), further attention on sustainability has increased, culminating in several important initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreements (COP 21) and the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations for Sustainable Development, both adopted in 2015. More recently, specific activities and regulations implemented by the European Union, including the EU Taxonomy and the European Green Deal, provide additional support for the green transition and integration of sustainability into company business models (BIS 2021).
From the perspective of banks, financial regulators are strengthening regulations in an attempt to encourage these institutions to support and promote sustainability practices. Recently banking supervisors have launched important appeals and recommendations to raise awareness on the potential effects of environmental risk, improve the understanding of climate risk measurement issues facing banks and on transitioning to a low-carbon and more circular economy. Specifically, increasing pressure is being exerted on all EU banks to integrate sustainability factors into the lending decision-making processes. In turn, increased commitment to climate issues could lead banks to develop a more effective environmental management system and environmental credit risk management which mediates bank riskiness and improves overall financial stability (EBA – European Banking Authority, 2020a, EBA – European Banking Authority, 2020b).
Conclusions, implications and future research lines
The ‘sustainability challenge’ represents a global issue that affects all companies, whether financial or non-financial, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic. Falling behind in this process of adaptation not only means losing a competitive advantage but also risking being pushed out of the marketplace altogether. This is true for banks, which are now being asked by regulators to rearrange all their main business processes (e.g., strategies, risk management, capital allocation, loan origination and monitoring, disclosure), adapting them to comply with specific ESG sustainability criteria. It is even more true, however, for non-financial firms, especially SMEs. These firms are a pillar of the European economy and a central player in value chains and community dynamics (Beck, 2013; Gomes and Pinho, 2023; Angilella and Mazzù, 2015). Thus, involving them in the sustainability process is vital to ensuring the success of the transition to sustainability in Europe. In addition, for SMEs, being included in the sustainability agenda is paramount to accessing key resources and opportunities, obtaining better financial conditions and entering into important partnerships (European Investment Bank-EIB, 2023).
Scholars have revealed that an increasing number of banks are starting to include ESG factors in their lending decisions (Scholtens, 2009, Goss and Roberts, 2011). Many financial intermediaries, facing the threats generated by ESG risks, tend to prefer lending to businesses that are more sustainable and, therefore, less risky (Weber, 2012). Academic research shows that this strategy is virtuous because granting credit to more sustainable companies creates value for banks in terms of a higher net interest margin and a reduction in default risk (Mirza et al., 2023). For these reasons, banks are also increasing their share of green operations by offering capital at lower cost to firms more compliant with environment goals (Attig et al., 2013, El Ghoul et al., 2018, Wellalage and Kumar, 2021).