No question about it, Americans have an overconsumption problem. The total outstanding balance of bank-issued credit cards per consumer was $5,710 in December 2008, according to Transunion. Americans like to buy new things and throw out the old ones. We also like to own lots of stuff we don’t need. Retailers profit from this, but so do money lenders. And many of these excessive retail purchases end up on credit cards. Discover has taken a step toward sustainability by introducing a new card made of biodegradable plastic, which it says is the first. But how green can a credit card really be if serves to encourage consumption?

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Discover launched their biodegradable credit card “in response to greater consumer interest in green products, and we hope this will appeal to those interested in living a greener life,” Discover publicist Laura Ingiss wrote in an email.

“The biodegradable Discover Card is another way for environmentally conscious consumers to do their part to help protect our planet,” said Kelly Tufts, director of marketing planning and strategy at Discover. “The card itself is made of biodegradable PVC, which breaks down 99% in nine months to five years in soil, water, compost, or whatever microorganisms are present (e.g. landfills or composts). Plus, the card leaves no toxic effect on the environment,” she wrote in an email.

Tufts also claims that Discover takes “great care to make responsible choices, so this new plastic fits in well with the way Discover currently operates.” She cited Discover’s effort to convert to paperless billing statements, which would be less expensive for the company anyway (greenwashing, greenwashing). Discover sent me a list of their green practices and many of them fell into this cost-reducing category. They do have a company-wide recycling program and a commuter program in two locations. They have also introduced a rideshare website that matches Discover employees at all locations.

But why not produce all the cards from biodegradable plastic? What’s the real loss to the customer?

Having card options is one of Discover’s selling points. Discover offers over 150 fun designs, from puppies and sports to fine art. But these cards won’t biodegrade. The biodegradable cards are available in standard designs only to Discover More, Motiva, Open Road and new card members.

Is it green?

Considering that credit card companies survive by encouraging overconsumption, it must be hard for them to reconcile this with sustainability. The result is this confused effort.

Discover told me that they are encouraging customers who are interested in the biodegradable card to wait until their current cards have expired or worn out to replace them with the biodegradable card. But the Discover web site sends the opposite message to customers interested in the fun and fancy designs – you can charge your card’s look but keep the same account number!

I’m all for a card that biodegrades, but what impact can it have if you’re still encouraging your customers to “freshen up your card’s look” by upgrading to a fancy design on a standard plastic card, and then using said plastic card to buy things you can’t afford with cash?

It’s great that Discover invested in the R&D to come up with a biodegradable card. But now that they’ve taken that step they should ensure that it has an impact. Otherwise, the only effect will be to draw some superficially eco-conscious credit card users, while other card members enjoy cutting up their cards whenever they expire and upgrading them to a new fancy design whenever they get tired of the old one.

“Once we see how consumers respond, we may consider making this design option available on other Discover Card designs,” Tufts said in an email.

I’m sure Discover will convert to all biodegradable plastic if the initiative comes from their customers. But this is not environmental stewardship, this is a marketing ploy. If you have to have a credit card, Discover’s biodegradable one is not a bad option. But it’s not really green.

+ Discover