Hot or Not? A Credit Card That Rewards Green Spending

Is bribing the ultimate way to get consumers to go green? While rewarding people with cash and other goodies for more sustainable behavior isn’t new, South Korea is taking the concept to another level with a proposed government-run credit card program in which users can earn points, and cash, for buying products that have a low-carbon footprint.

One reason such a program might work? The government’s motive is more altruistic than, say, one from a private credit card company. The Korean government believes the credit card program can help the country lower its estimated greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 by 30 percent. Apparently, a shopper can accumulate points not just for buying certain types of goods, but also for making other choices, such as forgoing paper cups in a coffee shop in favor of mugs that can be washed and used again.

It’s human nature to love freebies. So why not make use of that to shape people’s behavior? When the concept of climate change began to take hold in the public consciousness several years ago, one of the vogue things to do was to buy carbon credits, and you were supposed to feel good about spending the money. But spending something to feel good may not be a strong enough incentive.

Federal and state governments, meanwhile, have doled out far more lucrative incentives. You can get a federal tax of up to $7,500 for buying a plug-in electric car, and a 30 percent tax credit for installing a solar electric or water heating system.

But having a credit card or some way to tally up all the good eco-friendly choices you make and act as a piggy bank to reward you for good behavior? That’s an intriguing idea, particularly given the U.S. is a nation of heavy credit card users.

But a South Korea-style government program isn’t likely to happen in the U.S. since the government isn’t in the credit card business. But the idea might be attractive to credit card companies, which have already shown interest in eco-friendly marketing initiatives.

Of course, the cynics in all of us will see any “green purchase program” from credit card firms as just a masked attempt to encourage more spending on stuff people don’t need. In many cases, it probably would be.

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