Survey: U.S. not very eco-friendly with credit cards
Most still prefer paper statements over e-billing
By Kay Bell
Americans may well be more environmentally conscious and willing to support ecological causes, but not if it means making major changes in how they use their credit cards, according to a new national survey commissioned by CreditCards.com.
A representative sampling of 1,005 adults from across the United States, including 816 credit cardholders, were asked to consider three scenarios in which their plastic could be used to advance environmental causes. In each case, more than half said they would not want to modify their credit card practices in a way that might be more ecologically sound, according to the national poll commissioned by CreditCards.com and conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media.
The key findings:
- Seventy-one percent of the cardholders told pollsters that they still have their paper credit card statements delivered to curbside mailboxes rather to e-mail boxes as electronic bills.
- Among cardholders, 53 percent said they wouldn't replace their existing plastic card for one made out of recycled or biodegradable material even if the eco-card's terms and conditions were the same as their noncontributing account.
- Fifty-nine percent of cardholders surveyed are not willing to accept a higher interest rate if the added money was contributed to an environmental cause.
- Nearly a third of Americans (31 percent) are willing to pay a higher rate to do good for Earth; they'd be willing to pay an average of 3.9 percent higher rates.
- On every question, young cardholders are more willing to take eco-friendly actions.
The poll was conducted April 11-13, 2008 for CreditCards.com by the research firm GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media (See poll methodology).
More attention than ever is being paid to global climate issues, but the results show the distance that remains in breaking old habits and adopting environmentally friendly financial practices.
E-billing catching up, slowly
Electronic bill receipt is "absolutely lagging behind" online bill paying, says Michelle Flint, vice president of the Internet Banking and Electronic Payment division of CheckFree, a provider of financial electronic commerce services and products.
"Folks started getting comfortable making online payments about 10 years ago," says Flint. As those transactions were completed successfully, online payments have moved into the mainstream and consumers then began thinking about receiving bills electronically and companies responded.
"More and more people are using online banking, but not for bill presentment," agrees Robert Unger, senior director of Electronic Commerce Service at The Electronic Payments Association (NACHA). "There's been huge growth from online banking channels, but there's always a huge gap in online billing. They are two different activities and there are different needs and concerns around each one."
In many cases, says Unger, credit card customers want greater bill history options than are now provided. "Issuers need to step up their presentation of this information," he says in order for online billing to move forward.
Flint says companies typically find two primary reasons why people resist online statements. First, they use the paper bill for record keeping. "They want to make sure, whether it's to pay taxes or complete expense reports or to replace the shoebox or file cabinet, that they feel comfortable eliminating the paper," she says.
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"The other thing consumers tell us is that they use the [paper] bill to trigger in their minds that they have to make a payment," says Flint. A majority of consumers still make payments based on their paydays and when that task rolls around, they rely on the paper bill as a reminder.
The key to getting greater acceptance of online billing is not changing consumer bill-paying styles, says Flint, but being able to offer them more reminders, such as by cell phone. "It takes away the function of having that paper bill lying on the kitchen counter," she says.
Habit wins out
Jim Bruene, editor of the industry publication "Online Banking Report," agrees that routine is a major factor in bill receipt and payment. "A good segment of the public likes to see the paper and be reminded about what's due," he says. "It's habit. They first had a statement that came in the mail and they taught themselves to go through it on paper." To convert to e-bills, he says, requires a person to change a long-standing practice, "Do some work, take some risks."
Jarrod Holland, CEO of Holland & Holland Public Relations in Wilmington, North Carolilna, is one of the e-bill resisters. "I want a hard copy to present to my accountant," says Holland. Even if he got a bill electronically, he would print it out. "I like to see tangible paper in front of me to check for errors."
Bruene shares that sentiment. "If I make a charitable donation via credit card, I still have to print it off," he says. "If I'm going to have to print it, I might as well have Citibank send it to me. And it's a lot easier for me to find an envelope from Citibank in my pile than sort though a stack of identical computer printouts."
Holland also has lingering concerns about security, as well as the possibility that a paperless bill might be overlooked amid other e-mail messages or shuffled into a junk mail folder by spam filtering software.
Who embraces e-billing
About a quarter of the cardholders in the survey (28 percent) said they would switch to paperless billing, and there was negligible difference between men and women. But age was an important factor in willingness to embrace e-billing.
- The younger you are, the more likely you are to opt out of paper. Of the cardholders who had opted out of paper statements, the largest percentage (37 percent) were ages 18-34, closely followed by those in the 35-49 age group (32 percent). That demographic breakdown was just what Flint expected. "I think you'll see a lot of the younger generation, 35 and younger folks, coming online all paper-free," she says. Cardholders 65 and older were the most likely to stick with paper. Only 17 percent have gone paperless.
- Paperless statements also are more popular among higher income cardholders. Just 16 percent of those with incomes under $30,000 have gone to e-billing. As income rises, so does the willingness to go paperless: Those reporting incomes of $75,000 or more had the highest "paperless" rate at 37 percent.
Biodegradable? No, thanks
Another measure of consumers' willingness to make their card usage more ecologically friendly is whether they'd be willing to switch to a card that is recycled or made of biodegradable material.
It's now largely a hypothetical question in the United States, where plastic reigns supreme as the card material. But elsewhere in the world, recycled and biodegradable cards are more common.
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Greenpeace launched a biodegradable credit card in the United Kingdom in 1997. More recently, similar efforts have been explored by English finance companies Virgin Cards and Barclaycard. In 2006, Triodos Bank issued a Visa card made from PVC-free recyclable plastic to its Spanish customers. In March, Leonardo DiCaprio was in Hong Kong promoting a "green credit card" made of environmentally safe materials; it's a joint venture of HSBC and DiCaprio's foundation.
In the United States, the bioscience company Metabolix partnered in 2007 with Target to produce a gift card made of a biobased plastic for use in 129 of the discount retailer's stores nationwide.
Survey participants were asked whether they would switch to a biodegradable card or one made out of recycled material if all the bio-card's terms and conditions were equal. More than half (53 percent) indicated that environmental considerations were not enough to make them switch. Eighteen percent said they were not very likely to change to a card made of recycled or biodegradable material; 35 percent were more adamant, saying they were not likely at all to switch.
Age, gender affects bio-card consideration
Younger people and women were more amenable to such an eco-card change.
Fifty-three percent of women say they would be somewhat or very likely to swap cards. Men were less willing to switch, with only 36 percent saying it was a likely consideration even when terms were the same.
• Younger people were more likely to convert to a more bio-friendly piece of plastic, with 57 percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 somewhat or very likely to change to bio-cards. Of those 65 and older, 64 percent said they were not inclined to change cards on environmental grounds.
Flint, who worked in the credit card sector before joining CheckFree, is not surprised. She says that major credit industry representatives tell her they are focused on building card loyalty to reduce credit card churn and it's paying off. "People now tend to only carry one or two cards nowadays and they tend to be more loyal," she says.
Interest rates over environmental interests
Finally, the survey participants were asked whether they would be willing to pay a higher rate to benefit an environmental cause. The response was less than positive.
• When asked whether they would consider paying a higher interest rate on their credit card if they knew the difference would go to environmental causes, more than half -- 59 percent -- said no.
• Men seemed more resistant to increasing their monthly payments this way, with 62 percent saying they wouldn't accept any interest rate increase, compared to 57 percent of women.
The rejection of increased payments might be a reflection of consumers facing already overloaded credit accounts. Also, say financial experts, over the last few years consumers have been consistently cautioned about the long-term cost of paying higher interest rates.
A smaller hike OK for a few
Of the 31 percent who said they would pay more interest to benefit an environmental cause, most preferred the increase to be 5 percent or less. Just one person in 25 said they would accept a 10 percent rate hike for an ecological cause.
• Younger people were again most receptive to the idea, with 41 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 saying they would accept a higher rate for an environmental cause. The preferred increase amount among this group, however, was only 3.4 percentage points, somewhat less than the 5 percentage points being offered among those 65 and older.
These responses don't necessarily indicate that consumers are averse to giving to environmental causes via other credit-card related methods. In fact, existing conservation group affiliate cards remain popular and new ones are being rolled out.
The Nature Conservancy, for example, has offered a branded card for approximately 13 years. The organization receives contributions when cardholders sign up and first use the card, as well as when subsequent purchases are made. The benefit to The Nature Conservancy is between 25 cents and 65 cents for every $100 spent, depending on the type of card, and a representative of the group said the affinity card program brings in more than $1 million a year to the Conservancy's efforts.
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Credit card issuers continue to look at environmental hooks to reel in customers. CheckFree's parent company, Fiserv, is partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation and several banks across the country to plant trees this spring and summer when account holders switch to paperless statements or make multiple online payments.
Flint says that program is paying off for all concerned, but account-related contributions often face difficulty in meeting their financial and philanthropic goals. "There's an emotional consumer response around charitable donations," she says. "It's got to be your cause and you have to feel comfortable about the way the donation is made."
The survey was conducted from April 11-13 by GfK Custom Research North America on behalf of CreditCards.com, via random digit dialing phone interviews with 1,005 interview subjects 18 and older, with 539 females and 466 males surveyed. The raw data was then weighted by a custom designed computer program that automatically developed a weighting factor for each respondent, employing five variables: age, sex, education, race and geographic region.
Respondents were asked three questions:
- Have you opted out of receiving any of your credit card billing statements on paper, so that you just get them electronically? In addition to "yes" and "no" responses, individuals were given the option to indicate that they do not have credit cards.
- If all the terms and conditions were equal, how likely would you be to switch to a different credit card if the card itself was made out of recycled or biodegradable material? Respondents were asked to choose "very likely," "somewhat likely," "not very likely" or "not at all likely."
- How much higher of an interest rate would you be willing to pay on a credit card if you knew the difference was contributed to environmental causes? Respondents able to choose from no increase or one of the percentage hikes ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. They also could respond "Don't know."
In each case, the individuals were allowed to select one response. The total margin of error on weighted data for the full sample is + or - 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
Updated: May 2, 2008
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