Imagine that by buying efficient light bulbs or rechargeable batteries you received reward points and money off other sustainable goods. This is the idea behind sustainable consumption reward cards, which are currently being considered in the UK.

The idea for the cards was first aired in a seminar hosted by the National Consumer Council and the New Economics Foundation (nef) in November 2003. It drew on the experiences of a pilot card scheme that at the time was operating in Rotterdam. At its peak, 15,000 people were using cards in 100 retail stores. As a reward for recycling or buying sustainable products, cardholders earned points that could be redeemed against other sustainable products, and transport and leisure activities around the city.

Cardholders received a point for each euro spent on normal goods; four points on sustainable goods; 200 points for taking chemical waste to the dump; and 300 points for taking reusable items such as white goods to a waste station. In terms of rewards, a free cinema ticket ‘cost’ 700 points.

Changing behaviour

According to Rob van Hilten, a consultant involved with the project, retailers started to stock more sustainable products, while cardholders started to buy more green items as well as adopt more sustainable behaviour. Cardholders attended waste parks 2-5 more times on average than other shoppers.

Although the pilot scheme was stopped due to a lack of funds and political will, many think it could work here in the UK. David Boyle, editor at nef, says: “Politically it makes more sense to reward people for changing their behaviour than it does to punish them for not doing something.”

Jennie Bibbings, policy and development officer at the Welsh Consumer Council, which has looked into setting up a card scheme in Wales, agrees: “It would be a fantastic tool for awareness raising and would give people a full picture of what sustainable living is in practical terms.”

Attracting customer loyalty

From the retailers’ point of view, it could be a good way to launch a different type of reward scheme and attract a different sort of customer loyalty – one underpinned by the sense of doing something for society, rather than by getting 5p off the next twin-pack of toilet rolls.

Nigel Smith, CSR policy director at the British Retail Consortium, says he thinks retailers would go for it. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses would be keen to trial this with the local authorities, but dovetailing it with existing reward schemes that seems to be the difficulty.”

However, although the Dutch scheme involved both retailers and local authorities, few of the stores had their own cards already and so were keen to adopt the new ones. Most high streets in the UK are dominated by chain stores that already have their own reward cards.

There are other issues to consider. Should a scheme involve local authorities as well? Both Surrey and Belfast councils are in preliminary talks about the idea. Tim Walker, head of waste management at Belfast City Council says he isn’t thinking about involving retailers as he wants to minimise the monetary value of the scheme, so that there was no incentive to cheat the system.

Defining sustainable products

Also, who decides what products qualify as sustainable? While there are a few green labelling protocols in the UK, there would need to be more to ensure the credibility of the scheme’s sustainability credentials.

Encouraged by the fact that environment minister Elliot Morley is keen on the idea, Smith is hoping to run an awareness seminar with the NCC early next year to explore how such a scheme would work in the UK.

But success will depend on whether the idea will capture the imagination of stores and their customers. As Van Hilten says: “You have to decide what the value of the card is and how can you get it in the pocket of the consumer. It must go from being a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’.”

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