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Vancity's Visa cards will help consumers track their climate impact

Vancity's continuing efforts to be a climate-friendly credit union have extended into the Carbon Counter, a program to let Visa card holders see the carbon emissions of each purchase they make. (Courtesy Vancity)

Vancouver-based credit union Vancity hopes the inclusion of its Carbon Counter into Visa cards to track the environmental impact of credit card purchases will help its clients make more climate-friendly lifestyle choices.

Vancity says it is the first financial institution in Canada to offer a way for its members to estimate the carbon dioxide emissions associated with their purchases.

It will roll out Carbon Counter for 185,000 Visa credit card holders starting in early 2023.

Andrea Harris, vice president of impact strategy at Vancity, said the credit union embarked on the sustainability initiative because of its ownership structure.

“We’re different from a bank in that our customer, our members, actually own us. So we don’t have external shareholders,” she said in an interview with SustainableBiz.

“We’re always looking for ways to connect with our members and because we have deep commitment to climate and addressing the climate crisis, we want to provide tools to our members — in this case our Visa card holders — to help understand the role that they play in addressing the climate crisis.”

The Carbon Counter

The Carbon Counter is a program designed in partnership with German sustainability tracking startup ecolytiq that will measure the carbon emissions of each purchase made by a Vancity Visa customer.

It accounts for CO2 emissions by making calculations per specific spending category. Harris specified categories like groceries, gas and transportation, which are further broken down into subcategories. It will enable the user to customize the purchase for more accurate accounting. The emissions of a grocery purchase may be smaller if the card holder is a vegetarian or vegan, for example. It also allows the user to adjust the length of a flight to make an adjustment for how much more carbon will be emitted during travel.

Harris said Carbon Counter is based on aggregated Canadian emissions data originating from public research, while ecolytiq manages the data and algorithms behind the Carbon Counter. The startup's global presence provides “significant knowledge in this sector and space,” she added.

“ecolytiq is providing the engine in the back, and then because we are a locally based credit union, we are supplementing the information that you get through the carbon counter with tips around how to further reduce your emissions given our local context.”

When a Vancity user checks their balance on an app or the website, the Carbon Counter will give tips and tricks, with the help of local partners, to reduce their carbon footprint. Ideas include switching a diet from conventionally farmed meat to locally-raised organic meat, which Vancity’s collaborations have shown offers an improvement in greenhouse gas emissions.

By presenting the climate impact of each purchase or decision, Vancity aims to raise awareness about an individual’s effect on the environment and nudge them to make better decisions. Many of Vancity’s consumers are conscious about their climate impact, and Harris said connecting consumer habits to the climate may change their actions.

A ‘fitness tracker’ for carbon

The Carbon Counter also depicts the average carbon footprint of Vancity Visa cardholders. Harris said the purpose is to promote a competitive spirit among users to make a dent in their own emissions.

She likened the Carbon Counter to a fitness tracker that shows steps that were taken, but will still require the user to put on their running shoes.

Carbon Counter will not offer carbon credit purchases to offset emissions, nor does it have plans to do so. While it may not offer a way to minimize emissions directly, Harris expressed optimism it can still change people.

“We know that taking action on climate change is difficult and we know that for the most part the big impacts are in the space of government and big companies, big businesses, but individuals have a role to play as well,” Harris said.

“But there’s barriers around extra costs associated with purchasing environmentally-friendly products. Consumer awareness is a barrier, getting people to engage. So we’re hoping that Carbon Counter will help people raise some of that awareness as well as provide advice, but we know it’s not a silver bullet, but we’re hoping that it can really spark change.”

Vancity’s climate work

As Vancity primarily serves customers in B.C., Carbon Counter's reach will remain limited. But Harris hopes other Canadian financial institutions will follow its lead in widening transparency about the role each person has on the climate.

“Financial institutions have such an important role to play in addressing the climate crisis,” she said.

Vancity joins the ranks of other financial institutions like Mastercard, which in 2021 released the Mastercard Carbon Calculator with the help of Doconomy.

Harris also noted Vancity’s own efforts to tackle climate change.

Vancity set a goal for net-zero by 2040 across its mortgages and loans portfolios. Its enviroFund program puts five per cent of the profits from a Visa purchase toward climate-friendly businesses and organizations. Vancity supports loan programs that fund retrofits and electric vehicle purchases, offers a free energy advice program for homeowners, and guides business owners on reducing carbon emissions.

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