American Express is a household name—everyone knows you don’t leave home without it—but its environmental policies are less well known. The global financial services company has been quietly reducing its impact and funding eco projects for decades, though details of its various green initiatives are buried deep in its website. But do a little digging, and you’ll find that its efforts for the environment are wide-ranging and impressive. You could say the credit card company is better at walking than talking.

Although credit card companies do not traditionally have a large carbon footprint, American Express acknowledges that it is a “significant user of natural resources” and a “large consumer of paper.” And it is making a big commitment to reducing its impact. Having determined that its emissions in 2006 exceeded 300,000 metric tons of CO2 and its equivalents—70 percent of which came from electricity—the company vowed to reduce its carbon footprint by 10 percent by 2012.

To reach its environmental goals, American Express is taking a multipronged approach. It is focusing inward, on its own operations, business, products, and customers; and outward, on ways to help environmental organizations, other industries, and the world at large.

Environmental program

The credit card company’s primary environmental initiatives revolve around operating sustainably and reducing its impact. It recently implemented an enhanced environmental program built on its first set of principles, established nearly two decades ago. The program’s three elements are energy conservation, waste reduction, and sustainable use of natural resources.

  • Energy conservation: to operate more efficiently, the company has installed energy-efficient technology and lighting systems and building controls to manage electrical usage. It also supports green building design, as evidenced by its facility in Sydney, Australia.
  • Waste reduction: in addition to encouraging customers to go paperless for their statements, decreasing paper consumption, and offering a robust recycling program, American Express is looking for ways to reduce waste even in the lunchroom. Green initiatives in its cafeterias include reusing fryer oils for biodiesel fuel, offering organic foods and sustainable seafood, and using bulk condiments.
  • Natural resources: the company strives to respect existing resources when building new facilities, as well as conserve land, water, and fuel.
To ensure that its program is respected and followed, American Express created an Office of Environmental Responsibility, headed up by senior executives at the company. It is also holding its vendors accountable for their environmental policies, by reviewing the environmental impact and responsibility of its supply chain.

Customer support

American Express doesn’t just think about its own impact. It also encourages its customers to consider theirs. It campaigns for a switch to online statements and reporting to reduce paper consumption and waste; gives reward points for carbon offset purchases and charitable donations to environmental organizations; and consults business travel clients on their travel practices, helping them track their activities and measure their impact.

In May 2010, the company started rewarding customers for shopping green. It launched the ZYNC charge card, whose “eco pack” allows the user to get discounts and reward points for buying green products and services. And the eco concierge service, free with the pack, helps the user shop greener, too.

Product design

A big question mark for American Express is how to make its product eco-friendly. The iconic credit card, made of plastic, is not exactly kind to the environment. The company has rejected recycled content as being unable to stand up to the card’s usage and design needs, but it continues to research realistic options for alternative materials.

Environmental responsibility

One important way in which American Express is helping the environment is by funding organizations that work for its health, protection, and preservation, through grants, donations, and partnerships. It has long been involved in cause marketing, raising considerable funds for various causes—repairs to the Statue of Liberty, hunger and poverty initiatives, and the AIDS-fighting Product Red, a project of U2’s Bono—over the past 20 years.

American Express has given grants to many environmental charities and projects, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and, in the city of its headquarters, the New York Restoration Project, whose Put Down Roots campaign endeavors to help plant one million new trees in the five boroughs of New York City over ten years.

To encourage giving among its ranks, the company matches employees’ charitable contributions to eligible nonprofit environmental organizations. And, as with its ZYNC card, American Express finds ways to connect spending and giving to worthy causes. In 2008, it partnered with Macerich on the Give Green Gift Card, whose purchase benefited American Forests, a citizen conservation organization dedicated to the health of forest ecosystems.

Perhaps most visible of all these efforts is its Members Project with Take Part, an online initiative that enables anyone to volunteer (and earn reward points), donate (with an American Express card or points), or vote for a charity to receive funding from the company. In 2010, American Express will award $4 million in funding to twenty charitable organizations, including those in the category of Environment & Wildlife. Winners have included Keep America Beautiful, the Nature Conservancy, and Rainforest Alliance.

Travel & tourism

As a fixture in the travel and tourism industries and a founding member of the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), American Express is deeply involved in preservation efforts and sustainable tourism initiatives. It partners with the World Monuments Fund to preserve historic sites, supports the U.S. Travel Association in its efforts to promote sustainability in travel, and helps hotels set standards for sustainability through the ITP’s “Green Guidelines.” In 2007, it launched the Plan-It Green travel campaign with the Conservation Fund, donating to the organization for every online booking made with an American Express card at any of ten participating travel merchants.

With all these initiatives in place, American Express still recognizes areas where its environmental efforts need improvement—for example, only 3 percent of its South Florida facilities’ power comes from renewable sources—but its ongoing programs and clear passion for bettering the world, one step at a time, make it a green company to admire.

Know more about American Express and the environment? Leave us a note in the comments below.

Resources:

Recognizing Responsibility (American Express CSR report; PDF)

Members Project

GreenLAGirl.com Blog post on new ZYNC card

Editor's note: American Express is a Mother Nature Network sponsor.