Green rewards credit cards and debit cards are having a moment. The promise of a tree planted for every dollar spent or cash back for sustainable purchases is enticing. And innovations in financial technology and carbon measurement are making it easier than ever for companies to link consumer spending to climate change. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can spend your way to saving planet Earth. The real impact lies in the bank issuing the card.
Types of Green Credit Cards and Rewards
There are four categories of green credit cards, with some overlap in a number of instances.
First, cards that promise to help the environment by buying carbon offsets are evolving. Where these cards used to promise to plant a tree for every purchase or amount spent, they are starting to use more sophisticated methods to engage consumers. A number offer apps that calculate the carbon footprint of purchases, and others offer cash back for shopping for sustainable products or from environmentally conscious companies.
Whenever a card pledges to plant thousands or even millions of trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, be wary. Poor reforestation projects may do more harm than good, by planting the wrong tree species, failing to work with local communities, or providing little monitoring. Still, there are a number of reputable tree planting or conservation programs, and some offset programs include developing renewable energy projects or other measures besides tree planting. The best projects work with third-party monitors like 3Degrees or Native Energy.
One of the most effective ways to green your credit card is by focusing on the banking institution offering the credit. “A lot of people try to shop and live green but don't think about their banking, including credit cards,” according to Todd Larsen of non-profit Green America. “It has a big impact on the world.”
Larsen first recommends avoiding credit cards from banks profiled in Banking on Climate Chaos, a report on total fossil fuel investments by major financial institutions. According to the report, the top four banks supporting fossil fuels are all based in the U.S.: JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America.
Instead of relying on these mega-banks, Larsen thinks it is best to bank with smaller financial institutions or credit unions that are working to build community wealth. For example, Amalgamated Bank supports clean energy and local communities. Others include Beneficial State Bank, Sunrise, and Aspiration. Many of these banks are “B Corps,” meaning they have embedded social and environmental benefits into their business model.
One of the oldest types of eco-conscious credit cards is affiliate cards that donate a percentage (usually 0.5%) of a monthly bill to an environmental charity. On the positive side, these cards make donating easy. However, cardholders are not able to deduct donations come tax time, and many cards do not disclose how much is actually donated to charity or how the money is spent.
According to Ted Rossman of CreditCards.com, “it would be better to earn as much cash back as possible, then donate to a cause of your choosing. Why get only 1% on an eco-friendly card when you can get 2% on another?” But he has come to realize that consumers like the reminder that they are aligned with a non-profit whenever they pull out their card. “People like identifying with causes they care about,” explains Rossman. “Some people would ‘sacrifice’ rewards for a cause.”
Finally, some banks are swapping out the usual plastic cards with cards made from recycled content. Bank of America and American Express are issuing such recycled cards. But don’t fall for this gimmick. The financial practices of the banking institution issuing these cards are far more important than what materials make up the physical cards.
What to Look for in a Green Credit Card
As with any new card, when you think about how to choose a credit card, pay attention to the card’s interest rate and fees. If you typically carry a balance, make sure you focus first on cards with low interest rates. And if you have had a card for many years you may want to hold onto it, as older cards help boost your credit score.
The best green cards will offer low fees and interest rates in addition to a clear explanation of environmental benefits. These credit card issuers should report annually on carbon offsets and should partner with reputable organizations.
Some green card issuers also offer debit cards with better rewards, so be sure to check out all the options at a given bank.
Here are some of the best green credit and debit cards available.
Amalgamated Bank Maximum Rewards World Mastercard
- Green credentials: B Corp certified
- Website: www.amalgamatedbank.com
- Interest rate APR: 18.49% to 24.49%
- Introductory rate: 0% on purchases and balances transfers for the first twelve billing cycles.
- Annual fee: None
- Sign-up bonus: $30 after spending $600 in the first three billing cycles
- Carbon offsets: None
- Cash back or rewards: 1.5% cash back
Amalgamated offers a solid rewards credit card with no green marketing or offsets. The real impact is in putting your dollars to work in a mission-driven bank. Founded almost 100 years ago by a garment workers union, the bank does not invest in fossil fuel companies, and almost a third of its lending is dedicated to investing in climate solutions. The bank has excellent reporting and policies across environmental, social and governance issues. This card is ideal for people who want to keep their credit card simple but also support goals like affordable housing and renewable energy.
- Green credentials: B Corp certified.
- Website: www.aspiration.com
- Interest rate APR: 13.90% to 23.70%
- Introductory rate: none
- Annual fee: $60
- Sign-up bonus: $300 back if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days
- Carbon offsets: One tree planted each time you use your card
- Cash back or rewards: 1% cash back if you use your card enough times to offset your carbon footprint.
At first blush, the Aspiration Zero card looks like an exciting way to plant trees and earn cash back at the same time. The bank has put sustainability front and center in its products and messaging, helping customers measure and offset their carbon footprint. In fact, Aspiration recently acquired a tech company that helps customers measure the carbon footprints of their purchases. Aspiration partners with reputable offset certification companies like 3Degrees.
Every time a customer uses the card, Aspiration will work with its conservation partners to plant a tree. The company estimates that planting 30 trees in a month would offset the carbon emissions of a typical American household, so consumers who use the card this often will be rewarded with 1% cash back, or the option to plant more trees.
Aspiration lacks robust reporting on environmental impact, likely due to growing pains. The company launched in 2015, and the Zero card is only a year old. The CEO stepped down on October 13, 2022 as the company struggled to go public.
Aspiration also offers two green debit cards that provide up to 10% cash back on purchases from affiliated sustainable companies, called the Conscience Coalition. The coalition includes companies like the sustainable footwear manufacturer Allbirds, but lacks rewards for reducing consumption, such as by using public transportation.
Futurecard Visa Debit Card
- Green credentials: None
- Website: www.future.green
- Interest rate APR: N/A
- Annual fee: None
- Carbon offsets: None, but the card helps consumers track their carbon footprint.
- Cash back or rewards: 1% for standard purchases, up to 6% back for sustainable purchases.
With the recent launch of the Future debit card, consumers finally have access to a card that rewards reduced consumption. Cardholders earn up to 6% cash back for taking the subway or charging an electric vehicle, purchasing used clothing from The North Face or Goodwill, or buying affiliated ebikes or standard bikes. The company’s mission is to make sustainable choices more affordable to U.S. consumers.
According to the Futurecard’s website, planting trees alone is not the best way to address a family’s carbon emissions. In order to offset their emissions, “[e]very average American family would need to plant their own forest with thousands of trees each.” It is much simpler to “figure out how to make climate smart choices to lower their family’s carbon emissions in the first place.”
Atmos Debit Card
- Green credentials: B Corp
- Website: www.joinatmos.com
- Interest rate APR: N/A
- Annual fee: None
- Carbon offsets: None, but the card helps consumers track how their deposits are reducing carbon emissions.
- Cash back or rewards: 1% to 5% cash back for shopping with affiliated companies.
Like the Futurecard, Atmos is a recent fintech start-up that offers cash back for certain purchases from affiliated companies, like charging your electric vehicle at a Tesla charging station. Futurecard has a greater emphasis on reducing consumption through affiliates than does Atmos.
With each charge Atmos customers can donate “loose change” to the climate non-profit of their choice, or deposit the change in a savings account.
Atmos will use capital deposited by customers in their checking accounts to lend to renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and similar green projects, as long as they do not displace local people. Atmos plans to launch a credit card sometime in the next year.
The Green America Visa Card
- Green credentials: Affiliated with Green America
- Website: www.greenamerica.org
- Interest rate APR: 12.24% to 22.24%
- Introductory rate: 0% Introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months
- Annual fee: None
- Sign-up bonus: None
- Carbon offsets: None
- Cash back rate: 1% for each reward point that may be redeemed for goods through a third party.
The Green America card is a bit of a holdover from the days when affiliate cards were the only option available to eco-minded consumers. With each swipe of the card, a small amount is donated to Green America for its work promoting renewable energy, fair trade, and holding corporations accountable. The card is managed by community-oriented TCM Bank.
Ellen writes and edits personal finance stories, especially on credit cards and related products. She also covers the nexus between sustainability and personal finance. She was a manager and sustainability analyst at Calvert Investments for 15 years, focusing on climate change and consumer staples. She served on the sustainability councils of several Fortune 500 companies and led corporate engagements. Before joining Calvert, Ellen was a program officer for Winrock International, managing loans to alternative energy projects in Latin America. She earned a master’s from the U.C. Berkeley in international relations and Latin America.
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