Year for the Planet Week 46: Destroy Your Rewards Cards

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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If there’s one thing that locks us into consumerist culture, it’s a rewards card.

They seem harmless, and even helpful. But twelve drinks, get one free! Or better yet, collect stickers and get next year’s planner! Earn points, get rewards!

Rewards cards: A brilliant way to psychologically nudge us to keep buying crap. But why would you want thirteen drinks when you just wanted one?

Of course, I’m sure there are exceptions. Perhaps your neighborhood grocery store that sells local produce incentivizes you to shop with your own bags for a discount. Maybe a favorite smoothie place gives you a reward for bringing your own mug. A coffee brand may donate a portion of their profits to indigenous communities they support. Maybe you have a favorite credit card that gives you rewards you actually need—after all, we still live in a world of money.

But for rewards cards for large shopping malls, international coffee chains, and places that sell you processed food, I believe it’s best to opt out. What is labeled as an advantage to you might actually be the opposite to the planet—and using these cards actually helps you cause harm to it. Incentives are fine, but watch out for who they benefit and what its real cost is.

When I started this project and thought of the cards I had to throw out, I realized that this things should come with an audit of the true costs of consuming more. Something like: a completed set of stickers means you just threw away two dozen plastic straws into the ocean. Or that you consumed 10,000 extra calories. Or that you just took away 1000 hours of labor from an underpaid child worker. Sometimes our most harmful consumer choices are disguised in enticingly shiny things.

When I reflect on how I’ve felt in the past year of this project, I remember feeling rather dark pockets of isolation. I’ve realized that it is incredibly hard—and sometimes downright impossible—to be a “good” person when you live in a world with such broken systems and even incentivizes harmful behaviors. Want a stable job? Get ready to give up your true passion and values to do something like corporate banking and advertising and turn a blind eye to your clients’ misdemeanors. Want to invest in stocks to secure your future? Ha, I took a look at my bank’s list of companies and saw to my horror that the top-performing ones I would be giving money to are often the worst polluters and/or  distributors of unhealthy food. Want to exercise your right to vote? Get a load of all these below-average candidates and find the one who will cause the least damage. Eager to be social? Sheesh, I’d rather be alone than with people whose idea of a good time is eating all day, taking pictures of themselves, and shopping for stuff they don’t need to numb themselves from lives that they copied from everyone else’s.

And so it is with rewards cards. Want to feel accomplished? Spend more and get something you don’t really need for free. Congrats.

My recommendation is to toss rewards cards that inadvertently turn you into someone who harms the planet. Instead, design your own system by which you can incentivize yourself and let the environment benefit. For example:

1. If I commit to stop using plastic bags and straws, I will reward myself with a book every month.
2. If I stick to locally-sourced, plant-based meals, I will reward myself with a facial every week.
3. If I am able to convince someone to not use a plastic bag / cup / straw, I will add X amount of money to a savings account to get a new bike.

And so on and so forth.

If anything, choosing to opt out of lame rewards card systems gives us the freedom to unleash our imaginations to make new ones. Instead of bemoaning the free donut you won’t get, think of the money you actually saved by not getting sucked into twelve weeks of donut-eating. Success and rewards should look different to each of us—the incentive shouldn’t always be another planner that thousands of people will also have.

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