Q. I was appalled to find out that the credit card company I am using, Bank of America, is one of the biggest funders of oil and coal projects. I did a bit of research into socially just or environmentally friendly credit cards only to find “green” versions of the card from the same big companies you’d expect. In the movement to divest, I want to start with myself and feel good about my own personal spending habits. Are there good (read: green, local, socially just) credit card companies out there?

Celina S.

A. Dearest Celina,

Money, as they say, talks. And when you really listen, you might find you don’t like what yours is saying. We here at Grist talk a lot about making your green even greener by supporting environmental causes (including, ahem, this one) and buying earth-friendly products. But when you swipe your credit card to do so, are you inadvertently financing dirty deeds, too?

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Our too-big-to-fail banks haven’t been looking so great lately, what with their predatory lending, sketchy criminal dealings, and, you know, that whole worldwide recession thing. For a lot of people, that financial tomfoolery was enough to convince them it was time for a change — but we can also add environmental concerns to the list. As you’ve discovered, Celina, the big banks that issue many credit cards also support mountaintop mining operations and other coal projects, with Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, City, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo coming up as the worst offenders in a recent assessment by the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and BankTrack. That means that any fees the bank collects on your credit card (interest, transfer fees, annual fees, etc.) go into the pot that funds these climate-changing practices.

It’s enough to make one want to open an account with the Locked Box Buried in the Backyard Bank, but luckily we don’t need to go to such extremes to feel good about money management. There are indeed greener, more socially responsible credit cards out there, which fall into three basic categories.

One, we have so-called affinity cards (I suspect these are the ones you’ve looked into already, Celina). Biggie banks issue these in partnership with nonprofits, such as The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund, and a percentage of your purchases go straight to the nonprofit. But the rest of your card fees still go into the bank’s investment funds, so we haven’t solved the problem of your cash going toward coal development. Experts also caution that affinity cards might not have the lowest fees or the best rates and rewards, so you might be better off choosing a different rewards card and simply donating directly to your nonprofits of choice.

You may also be able to get a credit card through a local credit union, a nonprofit financial institution that doesn’t have to worry about making money and pleasing fat-cat shareholders. Credit unions often have great interest rates and spend their money on local investments like loans, not international tar sands projects, which make them very popular with the folks behind campaigns like Bank Transfer Day. This could be an easy and convenient choice to make your plastic more fantastic, Celina.

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There’s one more option to think about, though: community development banks. These are federally insured operations with the express goal to support low-income clients, finance small local businesses, and lend money to cool, if lower-return projects like putting solar panels on company roofs or starting community gardens. They’re considered the gold standard for groups like Green America, a nonprofit with a focus on making your money work for eco-friendly and just causes and the force behind Break Up with Your Mega-Bank. They’ve done lots of legwork to sniff out the best community development bank credit card options, too. You can find their list of suggested cards, some of which support things like permaculture projects in New Mexico and ecosystem protection in the Northwest, here.

Now that you know your better credit options, I hope you’re ready to charge ahead and pick the best card for you, Celina. In no time, your money will be spouting things like “I love affordable housing and local tomatoes!”


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