Oliver Balch talks to the payment giant's chief sustainability officer about the need to overcome consumer frustration over corporate inaction on climate change

It’s rare to get to February with New Year’s resolutions still intact. All the projections suggest that the healthy diet is already out of the window and the gym kit relegated back to the bottom drawer.

Throwing in the towel is not such an easy option, however, for the hundreds of companies that have recently publicly committed to meeting tough climate targets. Not only are there potential planetary implications, it could leave them open to considerable reputational risk.

Mastercard is among those that have signed up to the most ambitious climate goals, pledging back in November to go to net-zero by 2040.

Though this target is yet to be validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) – a partnership between carbon disclosure non-profit organisation CDP, the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature – an earlier one putting it on track to achieve net zero by 2050 was validated by SBTi last year.

The person responsible for delivering the payment giant’s promises is Kristina Kloberdanz, a 24-year veteran of IBM and, since 2017, Mastercard’s chief sustainability officer.

You had a lot of feeling of progress [at COP26], but also a lot of questioning from the thousands that were protesting on the streets

The stakes are high, she says, and closing the “trust gap” between business and the wider public won’t be easy. She says attending the recent UN United Nations climate summit in Glasgow left her worried about growing polarisation of opinion. “You had a lot of feeling of progress, but also a lot of questioning from the thousands that were protesting on the streets.”  

Like many other companies, Mastercard has a suite of carbon reduction programmes to balance out its carbon footprint. However, CDP recently gave it only a ‘B’ for its climate change performance, suggesting a creditable effort, but room for improvement.

With around 3 billion cardholders around the world, there is little question that Mastercard’s biggest opportunity for large-scale impact lies in the demand side of the carbon equation.  So how does a credit card company set about engaging such a wide and diverse audience?

Protesters outside the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. (Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Having spent her early career in marketing, Kloberdanz is a strong believer in prodding softly rather than pointing accusingly.

To that end, Mastercard has introduced a variety of consumer-focused initiatives over recent years, ranging  from using its sponsorship of the British AIG Women’s British Open golf competition to push refillable water bottles, through to issuing credit cards made from recyclable, bio-sourced materials.

A step up in sophistication is its new “‘carbon calculator” app. Launched last April, the app enables cardholders to track the carbon impacts of their purchases and, if they want to, donate to offset programmes. Mastercard has partnered with the app’s developer, Swedish fintech startup, Doconomy, to create this feature, which is integrated across its entire global network and available to partner banks to offer to consumers.  

Technically, the actions of consumers fall outside the scope of Mastercard’s net-zero pledge, but according to its research, 54% of adults in its key markets say they want to reduce their personal carbon footprint, with 42% identifying their shopping decisions as a key area for taking action.  

I can't tell you how many times I get asked the question, ‘Can we plant trees in XYZ location or with XYZ partner?’

Mastercard’s most ambitious consumer-facing initiative to date is the Priceless Planet Coalition, which has attracted 85 corporate partners, including HSBC, Itaú, Barclays, Santander and Scotiabank.

Launched in January 2020, the donation scheme aims to restore 100 million trees over five years by encouraging customers to contribute through a dedicated website. The rate? $2 per tree.

Yet tree-planting has a chequered history. Plant the wrong species in the wrong place and the effects (including biodiversity loss, carbon emissions from fire, and damage to local livelihood) can be questionable at best.

(Credit: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Kloberdanz says there are checks and balances built into the scheme to protect against those risks. The coalition is being advised by Conservation International and the World Resources Institute, and uses a “very rigorous process”, that seeks to balance climate priorities with positive outcomes for local communities and for nature, she says. 

“I can't tell you how many times I get asked the question, ‘Can we plant trees in XYZ location or with XYZ partner?’ And I'm constantly saying ‘no’ because we’re doing it for the purpose of climate first.”

As far as authenticity goes, consumers would be right to also ask what difference the project is making. While Kloberdanz insists that Mastercard is committed to monitoring and reporting on the programme’s impacts, current communications centre mostly on blog posts (see examples from Kenya and Brazil), which are strong on process and rich in imagery, but offer little by way of empirical data.

We can't wait till we have all the answers

Mastercard’s sustainability chief says it’s early days, and promises that hard numbers will be published in the near future on the project’s website, as well as in the company’s annual sustainability report.

Bridging the trust gap will ultimately depend on whether all of Mastercard’s efforts lead to a quantifiable drop in emissions. Kloberdanz is convinced they will, although when and by how much remain far from certain. What she can say is that procrastinating, like quitting, is not an option.

“We can't wait till we have all the answers,” she says. “Because if we did, we'd never start the process at all.”

Main picture: Kristina Kloberdanz (on the right)  hosting a panel at COP26. (Credit: Mastercard)

This article is part of the February 2022 issue of Sustainable Business Review. See also:

Policy Watch: Why global progress on climate may hinge on Biden’s Build Back Better bill

Brand Watch: Will 2022 be the year that sustainable consumption finally takes hold?

ESG Watch: Disclosure pressures to grow as investors push for transparency and a just transition

Society Watch: Indigenous people ‘critical to tackling biodiversity loss’ in crucial year

Made in Turkey: Arçelik’s CEO tries to flip the switch on CO2 emissions

Mastercard  SBTi  COP26  climate change  Priceless Planet Coalition  reforestation 

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