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Everything’s going green

Emily Crone

Green has become quite a popular color. Hybrid cars are all the rage, energy-saving light bulbs are flooding the market and Oprah recently had an entire episode devoted to simple ways to “go green.” As everyone is finally grasping the importance of global warming and its disastrous effects, businesses are racing to create environmentally friendly products and services.  As General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt says, “Green is green.”

I recently heard on NPR that certain issuers are creating “green credit cards” to help consumers save the earth, one dollar at a time. Being the skeptic that I am, I decided to do a little research to find how these cards work.

GE gets earthy
The Earth Rewards Card is a MasterCard issued by GE Money (yep, General Electric). It comes with two options: allow 1 percent of purchases to be automatically contributed to climate projects, or contribute .5 to climate projects and receive the other .5 percent as cash back. Cardholders receive a statement each Earth Day showing their personal impact on reducing greenhouse gases. You can also choose your own environmentally-themed card design. How cute.

Statements are paperless “to save trees, eliminate waste water and cut the indirect carbon emissions generated from delivering paper statements.” A few factoids from the card’s Web site:
•    Spending $25 on the card offsets emissions from running a typical refrigerator for a month
•    Spending $500 on the card offsets emissions from driving 1,500 miles in an average car
•    100,000 people spending $750 a month on the card eliminates emissions from 175,000 cars a year

I assume this formula only works if consumers allow 1 percent to go to the climate projects rather than taking the .5 percent cash back.

Other green cards
Bank of America just announced the launch of its eco-friendly card, the Brighter Planet Credit Card. “The points earned are used to help build community-based renewable energy projects across the United States,” a press release says. Members of another BofA credit card rewards program, WorldPoints, can cash in for “green” swag.

UK consumers can apply for the Barclaycard Breathe Credit Card, which donates 50 percent of net profits after taxes to projects on climate change. Cardholders also have access to eco-friendly offers, such as discounts on home insulation, bicycles and gardening products. The Dutch bank Rabobank is introducing a very similar product called the Climate Card.

Are these cards really “green”?
In a blog about green credit cards, a user wrote this comment:
“It takes over 25 years for a standard multi-graded PVC plastic credit card to break down. During this breaking down period the plastics leak numerous highly poisonous dioxins into our land and waterways. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) gives off hydrogen chloride gas a toxic colorless gas which can cause severe respiratory, eye and skin disorders. Phthalates are also added to PVC, this chemical is linked to cancer and kidney damage. Chlorine and organic tin compounds (found in credit cards), also pose a real threat to our health and environment.”

I tried to verify those facts, but I am not a chemist and could not decipher much of what I found. So those statements may or may not be true. Either way, with green cards, cardholders are encouraged to spend more money on the card in order to further protect the environment. But the more they’re spending, the more they’re consuming, and the more waste they are creating, whether it be fumes or plastic packaging. Green cards don’t seem to be as promising as this tree hugger had hoped. This Fortune column exhibits similar skepticism.

PVC alternatives
Interestingly, I just found out that a company called Metabolix produced biodegradable gift cards for Target. The cards are made using a plastic type resin called Mirel that derives from corn sugar. A “green” Visa card launched by Tridos, a European bank, not only contributes to climate projects but is made of PVC-free recyclable plastic.  Let’s hope these kinds of cards catch on!

In the mean time, there are other ways to support the environment. Large issuers such as Bank of America and Chase have “cause cards” branded by hundreds of organizations, and typically 1 percent of your purchases is donated to that organization by your bank — you don’t pay anything extra. Eco-friendly causes with cards include: Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Audubon Nature Institute, National Geographic and National Parks Conservation Association.  These cards come with beautiful designs related to the organization.

Go on now, save the earth.

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  • Although I agree that switching to biodegradable cards would help the environment, I believe that switching to e-statments will help even more by reducing solid waste in landfills and our collective carbon footprint.