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This new rewards card is trying to make ‘green spending’ a thing

The best thing we can do for the environment is to buy less. The next best thing, according to FutureCard’s founder, is to spend our money on sustainable brands.

This new rewards card is trying to make ‘green spending’ a thing
[Image: courtesy FutureCard]

Who doesn’t love credit card points? My Apple card gives me 3% cash back when I buy Apple products and a host of other things. My husband’s Chase card gives us triple points on dining, flights, hotels, and Ubers. And just last week, AmEx offered me $10 back if I spent $20 on fuel through BP’s app (though I don’t even drive). In theory, it sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but there’s one big catch: These credit cards are rewarding me for things that aren’t good for the planet.

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The new FutureCard wants to do the exact opposite. The card offers 5% cash-back on all “green spending,” which includes things like riding a Citi bike, taking public transport, and buying second-hand clothes. The way the company defines “green” is important. So far, it works with over 50,000 U.S. merchants in the sectors of circular fashion, plant-based products, and public transport. But that doesn’t mean there are 50,000 truly sustainable brands out there. It just means that these brands have a more sustainable offering, and a lower carbon footprint than the most common alternative: think subway vs. car; or Beyond Meat vs. ground beef.

Credit cards are often blamed for increasing spending and household debt. By delaying payment, they put the cost out of mind, and by offering incentives like points and cash back, they’ve been shown to exploit the so-called “rewards center” in our brain. FutureCard, however, works a little differently.

The company’s ultimate goal is to shift spending and encourage more sustainable behavior across the board — and it promises to do that with no interest or late fees. It’s also not a credit card but a rewards card: you link it to your bank account and the money gets taken out within a few days of the purchase. (Like other cards out there, FutureCard receives fees from the merchants it works with; in this case, they’re set by Visa.)

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While 5% cash back isn’t enough to get someone to go vegan, or ditch the car for the bus, it could be a welcome nudge for those already trying to live more sustainably. Conversely, as eco-minded companies continue to compete for business with mass retailers, it could help bring more consumers through the door, too.

[Image: courtesy FutureCard]
FutureCard launched last November, but sign-ups quadrupled just before the New Year, when the company added electric scooters and bike share to the platform. Just this month, FutureCard also partnered with e-bike brand Rad Power Bikes, which gives customers 6% cash back.

To build out the list of brands included, FutureCard collaborated with researchers at the Climate School at Columbia University, Oxford’s Martin School, and the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at ASU. Jean-Louis Warnholz, Future’s CEO and co-founder, says he doesn’t claim that every single brand they work with qualifies as sustainable. “The big challenge is that term is often meaningless,” he says. Instead of choosing sustainability, FutureCard focuses on a company’s carbon footprint. The team has leveraged artificial intelligence to calculate the carbon footprint of each brand it supports—right down to individual products— and compares them to other brands. “We looked at brands where the commitment starts with them as opposed to buying relatively cheap offsets,” he says, citing decarbonized shipping or switching to renewables as potential solutions. The company is looking to expand its partner sectors to renewable energy (like a heat pump or switching to solar), and local agriculture ventures.

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FutureCard also leverages technology that can differentiate between product lines within a single brand. For example, if you shop at Lululemon, you would only get 1% cash back. But if you buy from Lululemon Like New—part of the brand’s resale program—you get 5%. The same logic applies to The North Face’s Renewed collection, Timberland’s Timberloop, Levi’s SecondHand, and many other circular fashion brands like ThredUp and Rent the Runway. In these cases, cash-back happens automatically, but when it comes to a long grocery list with one bag of Impossible Foods’ frozen chicken nuggets, the company has built an algorithm that can scan the receipt, locate the plant-based products, and give you cash back retroactively (provided you remember to actually scan your receipt).

Whether the FutureCard can shift consumer behavior, however, will depend on how committed we are to tracking our spending—and what drives us to buy certain products over others. In most instances, it comes down to two radically different incentives: things that we want and things that we need. Neeru Paharia, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University, says products with some kind of sustainability credentials—like an e-bike or a pair of Allbirds—tend to fall in the “want” category. For such purchases, which are driven by emotions, not utilitarian need, the card could lead to more spending. For those who want to be more environmentally friendly in the first place, the card could act as an “acquisition channel,” helping people cut through the noise and pick a brand that’s already been pre-vetted.

For Paharia, whose research focuses on consumer behavior and sustainable consumption, the card’s most promising feature, is the support it can give the small players who are entering an established market. She says these brands often have to invest more to make more sustainable products, so it’s only fair that they should get a little seal of approval in the form of an incentive.

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Of course, as responsible consumers, it’s an open question as to whether we should be leaning into those incentives. Because ultimately, the easiest thing we can do to cut our carbon footprint is to buy less stuff.

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