Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg grabbed headlines in the U.S. last month when she traveled to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in a sailboat and then accused adults of having stolen her generation’s hopes and dreams with their inaction on climate change. But in her home country, Thunberg and her movement already seem to be having an effect on the habits of adults; domestic air travel is falling in Sweden as she’s become the face of a push to reduce air travel.
Even if you’re not ready to cut back on flying, there are other ways you can have a personal and positive impact on the environment. One of the most obvious is with your money—how you bank it, invest it, spend it and share it. Here are eight ways to make your money greener (or promote other causes you deem worthy).
1. Switch Banks
We get it. Switching banks is a hassle. In the most recent year studied, J.D. Power reports, only 4% of bank customers made a switch. More often, consumers simply add a bank when they want a new service and end up banking with more than one institution.
Still, if you’re ready to leave your bank or add a new one, it makes sense to include an institution’s environmental policies in your search criteria. That can mean either looking for banks that were created with a green or social mission, or checking out established banks’ environmental records.
A few organizations track banks that have embraced an environmental mission. For example, the website of Green America promotes banks and credit unions that have partnered with its efforts. If you’re in the New York and D.C. area, you’ll see Amalgamated Bank pop up. From D.C. to Virginia, there’s United Bank.
On the West Coast in California, there’s Pacific Premier Bank (it made our 2019 Best Banks In America list) and Neighborhood National Bank. In southern states like Alabama there’s the Bank of Vernon. Most of the banks are small or community banks, which means they may not offer all the services you want.
If you prefer bigger banks, consider checking out the ratings of JUST Capital–a not-for-profit that rates big public companies on a variety of corporate responsibility factors, including their environmental records and (full disclosure) partners with Forbes to produce the Just 100.
To save you time, we sorted the list of big banks based on their JUST environmental scores here; Citigroup took first followed by Wells Fargo and PNC Financial Services, which tied for second place on this list. You can also search JUST’s listings for banks that avoid working with oppressive governments or authorities and banks that excel in their treatment of workers, customers or communities.
Another option: Fintech startup Aspiration offers what it promotes as socially responsible banking services. Its cash management account, similar to checking, made our list of Best Cash Management Accounts of 2019. It also offers investment funds, the Redwood Fund and Redwood IRA, composed of companies committed to ethnic diversity, gender diversity, better ethics and addressing climate change. If you want to know more, read Forbes Advisor’s review of Aspiration.
Ready to switch? Check out How To Switch Banks In 5 Easy Steps. If you’re interested in communicating your social and environmental reasons for leaving to a bank and being part of an initiative, there are organizations such as Real Money Moves (Breaking Up Is Hard To Do) and Women Power Our Planet that offer guides on how to do that.
2. Make Your Current Bank Greener
If you don’t want to switch banks, there are ways—from going to paperless statements to pressuring your bank to behave better—to help the environment or other causes.
Going paperless saves banks money, which is, no doubt, a big part of the reason why they promote it so relentlessly. But it also reduces the number of trees that get logged and cuts down on the environmental impact of producing and delivering paper.
Doesn’t storing data suck up energy? Yep, that’s why Microsoft, #1 on the Just 100 for 2019, is working so hard to reduce energy use at its data centers. But your bank is going to keep your records online regardless. So unless you have a compelling reason for needing paper, you might as well go paperless. (As a bonus, some banks will even offer you rewards or discounts for saving them the cost of mailing you statements.)
Beyond going paperless, when your bank offers a product or service that is green and positively engages the local community, support it. Sure, these efforts might be in large part public relations. But if the response to a bank’s environmental efforts are positive, it is likely to do more. In other words, banks have feelings (okay, marketing departments), too.
Want to amp up the pressure on your bank? Besides listing banks it approves of, Green America’s finance page has calls to action to pressure certain banks to, for example, stop funding fossil fuel companies. If other issues concern you, look around. Example: Guns Down America rates banks on whether they make loans to the gun industry.
And don’t forget that the big banks are publicly traded. That means they respond to shareholders as well as customers and workers. In 2018, a group of Catholic nuns flexed their shareholder muscles and pushed Wells Fargo to publish a business standards report on its own shortcomings.
3. Get a Socially Responsible Credit or Debit Card
There are three ways to use your credit card to advance green and other causes you care about: using affinity credit cards; donating credit card reward points or cash back; and getting a card from a socially responsible bank.
Affinity credit cards are issued in partnership with a charitable organization. For example, Bank of America offers the Susan G. Komen Visa Signature credit card—0.08% of every purchase goes to the charity’s fight against breast cancer. The bank also donates an additional $3 every year the card is renewed. Plus, you get a pretty good deal: 1% to 3% cash back and no annual fee. BofA offers a similar card with the World Wildlife Fund as the beneficiary. And both cards are currently offering a $200 sign-up bonus. (Read: The Best Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses.)
Meanwhile, some credit card issuers offer you the choice of directing the reward points or cash back you’ve earned to charities of your choice. Discover allows you to give to a list of charities that includes the American Red Cross, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Operation Homefront and the World Wildlife Fund. Mastercard has the Charity Charge World Mastercard credit card that donates 1% cash back on every purchase to any nonprofit or religious organization you want.
Affinity cards and donating rewards points help you support the cause of your choice, but these approaches don’t assure that the bank issuing the card meets your definition of socially responsible. If that is something that greatly concerns you, then head back to Green America and look at its list of socially responsible credit cards offered by the Independent Community Bankers of America, an organization that supports community banks.
4. Become A Socially Aware Investor
Whether you call it Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), Environmental Social & Governance (ESG) investing or Impact Investing, there are more options than ever for putting your investment dollars where your values are.
Choices in this area range from narrow impact investments, such as green bonds to support renewable energy; to baskets of theme (e.g.“fossil free”) stocks, such as those offered by Motif Investing; to broad-based managed mutual funds; to modified index funds that simply omit fossil fuel stocks. (Or weapons stocks or tobacco—or whatever.)
There are good financial (as opposed to ethical) arguments both for and against ESG investing. On the one hand, some investing pros think the impact of climate change on companies is being wildly underestimated and that just buying the market could be a mistake. (Read This Hedge Fund Superstar Thinks Climate Change Will Impact All Your Investments-And Soon.)
On the other hand, ESG investments tend to be less tested and more expensive— for example, the new Vanguard Global ESG Select Stock Fund (VEIGX) has an annual expense ratio of 0.55%, compared to just 0.14% for the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX). (Read: We Want to Invest in ESG Funds, But Don’t. Here’s Why.)
Regardless, it’s usually smart to start small when investing in a new way, and fortunately, there are a growing number of apps and investing services that allow you to do just that.
For example, Stash, which allows customers to buy fractional shares of individual stocks and ETFs, highlights a clean energy ETF known as Clean & Green on its educational page. The ETF includes 30 renewable energy companies. Stash also lists a non-energy-focused portfolio that it describes as the Do The Right Thing ETF—actually the iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF.
Motif is another fractional buying service that allows users to create their own special interest baskets of stocks or buy into thematic portfolios created by others.
Robinhood and Acorns are two apps that offer clean energy portfolios along with socially responsible funds. The leading robo-advisors, such as Betterment, also offer socially responsible funds. If you’re looking for a robo-advisor that solely focuses on SRI, then check out Earthfolio.
When researching individual mutual funds, you can use a website like Fossil Free Funds. You type in the name of the fund or its ticker and it will give you a break down of how the fund does or does not contribute to carbon emissions. Plus, big mutual fund providers like Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, now provide information on funds that are socially responsible.
Don’t be surprised if your 401(k) doesn’t offer ESG fund choices—by one estimate fewer than 10% of plans do. (If you’re really determined, ask whether your plan offers a brokerage window, which lets you invest outside the normal menu of fund choices.)
5. Shop Socially Smart
When banking fintech Aspiration rolled out Aspiration Impact Measurement (AIM), it was a reminder that spending money can be socially responsible, too. The AIM tool allows customers to see the environmental and social effect they have on the planet based on the businesses they choose to shop at. Moreover, Aspiration’s debit card gives you a cash back bonus for shopping at businesses with high AIM scores.
Or you could take the what-not-to-buy approach. The Buycott app—available for both iPhones and Android phones—allows you to scan a bar code or a product’s QR code and then see if that product runs afoul of causes you care about. For an all around socially responsible shopping experience, an app called Better World Shopper (iOS) let’s you search for shops by name and see how your local haunts are graded. If they don’t score well, and you’re looking for new businesses to support, check out the B Corp listings—these are businesses that have committed themselves to a high standard of behavior.
Finally, there’s the cash-back-for-charity approach to buying. Amazon.com shoppers can take advantage of AmazonSmile, a philanthropy program where 0.5% of eligible purchases on Amazon go to a charity of your choice. Feeling extra generous? You can buy an item that a charity needs from Amazon’s charity list—and Amazon will still donate 0.5% of your purchase to the charity of your choice.
6. Book Travel With Responsible Companies
Various airlines, trains, hotels and cruise lines are all committing to reducing their carbon footprints. For help, check out this list of 50 Travel Companies Trying Their Hardest To Reduce Their Carbon Footprint. On it, you’ll find airlines like JetBlue and British Airways and food chains popular in airports, such as Starbucks, that have pledged to be more socially responsible. Some of the transportation systems on this list are not only trying to cut their own carbon footprints, but are also offsetting the current carbon emissions by funding projects that will help absorb carbon emissions.
“You are not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.” — RuPaul
Yep, this is a money issue, too, since carpooling will not only cut your individual carbon footprint but should also save you some bucks. Carpooling with coworkers, neighbors, and fellow soccer parents has always been a thing. But here too, apps are making it easier than ever to behave responsibly. Among the apps available for both Apple and Android users.
- GoCarma. A carpool program for coworkers and families with services in the U.S. and Europe. The app helps frequenters of the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or carpool lane receive discounts on tolls.
- Scoop. Here’s a carpool service that’s designed for coworkers who live near each other and neighbors who work in close proximity.
- Uber and Lyft. These ridesharing apps have carpool options that allow you to pay less than for solo rides.
- Waze Carpool. Waze is originally a GPS navigation app, but it entered the ridesharing industry and has differentiated itself in three ways. You carpool with anyone headed in your direction, but unlike Uber and Lyft, you get to choose who the driver is and who the group of carpoolers will be. The third way is that you get to split the cost of the ride with other riders. That makes carpooling with strangers more comfortable.
- Via. A low-cost, ride-sharing app for city-dwellers who don’t mind carpooling.
Individual giving to charity declined 1.1% in 2018 to $292 billion, and was down 3.4% when adjusted for inflation—a decline that is generally attributed to the December 2017 tax reform, which dramatically reduced the number of tax filers who can benefit from the charitable tax deduction. Still, environmental and animal organizations did comparatively well in 2018, with donations (including those from foundations and businesses) climbing 3.6% from 2017 to $12.70 billion. That’s an all-time high and a 1.2% increase when adjusted for inflation.
Here’s the good news: While it’s harder than ever to claim a tax deduction, it’s easier than ever to donate and to find organizations you care about. Major charities all take donations online. (You can see America’s Top 100 Charities, as measured by donations and sort them by their mission, here.)
In this area, too, apps can help you achieve your goals. Here are some options.
- Coin Up. A roundup app that takes your leftover change and gives it to a charity of your choice. You may not find the charity you want, but you may find others that could be just as worthy.
- ShareTheMeal. The United Nations World Food Programme created an app for people to help fight hunger across the world. You can give as little as $0.50, and it can feed one child for one day.
- WoofTrax’ Walk for a Dog. This app allows you to use your normal everyday dog walks to fundraise money for your local animal shelter.
- Donate a Photo by Johnson & Johnson. The queen and kings of Instagram selfies can donate their photos to the Johnson & Johnson app and then J&J will donate $1 per photo to the cause of your choice.
- Charity Miles. Active people can use their exercise routines for daily greater good. This app allows you to raise money from family and friends for the charity of your choice without committing to an event. You can raise money for charity as you reach physical milestones through walking, running or biking.
How do you know where an organization will use your charitable dollars efficiently? It can be difficult to determine on your own, although this advice in How To Check Out A Charity Before Giving can help.
Another option: The Better Business Bureau has created a list of 20 environmental and animal charities that meet its accountability standards. The charities on this list have a BBB Accredited Charity badge somewhere on their website to notify you that there’s an agency holding them accountable. BBB also has a library of guides on discerning where to give and how to be an informed donor. Other websites that can help you evaluate charities include Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.
Asia is a personal finance writer for the Money and Markets team at Forbes. She's based in New Jersey. Before joining Forbes, she reported for Financial Advisor magazine and also wrote for The Cranford Chronicle, NJ.Com and ThePopBreak.com. She also spent two years teaching English as another language in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China.