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Future offers a payment card and discounts to push sustainable shopping

Can adding another payment card help anyone live more sustainably?

The folks at Future think so. The company offers 5% cash rewards for everyday purchases like taking public transit and shopping for secondhand or refurbished clothes and 1% cash back on all other purchases. It's a small bid to shift consumer behavior to more eco-friendly choices and its approach seems to be resonating with early adopters.

"Living climate smart and doing what's right for the planet is something a lot of people want, but it feels really hard... like something that rich white people do with Tesla's and Oatly lattes," says Jean-Louis Warnholz, the chief executive officer of Future.

"We're trying to make that easier with decision engines that save you money, are good for your wallet and good for the planet," Warnholz says.

The company is still in its earliest days with only 7,000 cardholders and about 14,000 people on the waiting list, but Warnholz says the feedback has been positive and the changes in consumer behavior are real.

"Most folks are not aware that there are ways that they can take advantage of these innovations like used Levis or electric bikes, or options for dairy alternative," Warnholz says. "There’s a lot of change and a lot innovation and most folks don’t know…. And the association is that doing something sustainable is expensive. We’re trying to combat this and that’s why we’ve designed the card to be available for everybody."

Applying for a Future card is easy if a user banks with any major bank. The virtual cards show up in an Apple Wallet or Google Pay and the application doesn't require a credit check, and has no annual fees or interest.

Paying with the card just means that customers get savings for buying things that have lower carbon footprints.

That means 5% cash back at bike shops and for bike rentals, for electric vehicle charging, for shopping online for used clothes, secondhand and at thrift stores, and for public transportation. The company is also adding perks for buying sustainably grown and lower emission groceries and food items.

Paying with the Future card also gives the company a window into other consumer spending habits so it can make recommendations on how to reduce the carbon footprint of someone's daily life.

"It’s designed to be your personal assistant for climate smart living," Warnholz says.

Warnholz and his co-founder Kamal Bhattacharya (a former executive at the Kenyan telecom SafariCom, which developed what's arguably the world's most successful digital currency -- M-Pesa) have been careful about what sorts of products are offered through its green cashback program.

"We’re rigorous in figuring out the science whether something really is low carbon or not," says Warnholz. "We have a future green selection where based on our algorithms whether the science behind this is really low carbon. We’re adding plant-based food chains to it as well… we’re looking to make a deal with heat pump manufacturers."

Future also offers suggestions to its customers on how they can reduce their carbon footprints and save money. That includes figuring out if buying a heat pump makes sense for someone or determining whether they could save money with an electric vehicle (if their utility payments are made through the Future Card).

"What we’re hearing from our members is we’ve done.. I want to do what’s right for the planet and I’m struggling. I don’t need something where I’m planting trees, I need something that helps my life today. There’s a lot of that stuff and we’re systematically finding it and trying to bring it to our members and that’s the business model," says Warnholz.

And the Future co-founder argues that simply shifting the emphasis in the $60 billion credit rewards industry can make a difference. Most of the cash back offers from cards go to high carbon emissions purchases. "None of this is designed to figure out how to help you lighten your load and lower your footprint... There is no card that helps you navigate this new world and saves you a little bit of money in the process," says Warnholz.

Warnholz and Bhattarcharya were first introduced by an Oxford professor because of their shared interest in economic development. The Future co-founders both had deep experience in financial development in Africa, Bhattarcharya through Safaricom and Warnholz through his career in the policy arena.

A native of Northern Germany who studied at Oxford, Warnholz's family took regular trips to Africa to volunteer there when Warnholz was growing up.

In high school Warnholz started a student aid organization that focused on rebuilding the former Yugoslavian republics in the aftermath of the Bosnian war.

"I realized in the end unless you shift the economic incentives and find ways to create jobs all of the schools and money that you’re putting in doesn’t do much to help," says Warnholz. "I became very nerdy and started to focus on how to create structural opportunities to shift economics in those markets."

It's that emphasis on shifting market opportunities that led Warnholz and Bhattacharya to launch Future.

"We both have a fascination with how can you make markets work better," Warnholz says of his co-founder. Now they're trying to apply that fascination to consumer behavior and greenhouse gas emissions.

Select retailers with Future's 5% cash back program:

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