Over the years, Mastercard has been leading the payments industry forward to a more sustainable future. To help address issues of environmental pollution and climate change, the multinational financial services, collaborating with industry players, is running a sustainable card program a directory of sustainable materials and vendors for card products that aims to make a sustainable choice the preferred option for all card issuers and financial institutions across the world.

The sustainable card offerings are currently available to consumers in over a dozen countries globally and more than 60 financial institutions – including Crédit Agricole and Mauritius Commercial Bank – have issued cards with approved materials made from recyclable, bio-sourced, chlorine-free, degradable, and ocean plastics. With the program, banks can learn more about these alternatives, connect to card manufacturers, and ultimately augment their own sustainability initiatives with a systemic change to their supply chain.

In an interview with Ventures Africa, Ajay Bhalla, the company’s president for Cyber and Intelligence, talks about issues arising from the new cards, importance of a pollution-free environment for business growth and realization of sustainable development as well as the ultimate benefit for Mastercard’s rollout in Mauritius and Africa as a whole.

Ventures Africa: Mastercard makes environmental sustainability central to its business model. Why has this become an important component of your strategic thinking?

Ajay Bhalla: We believe in doing well by doing good. Environmental sustainability is both good for business and the planet. As a core component of our wider business strategy, we’re advancing inclusive growth, conducting business in a trusted and transparent way, building an inspired workforce, and being good stewards of the environment to create a sustainable future for Mastercard and the world around us. In short, we believe only meaningful and long-lasting change will protect the environment for generations to come. 

VA: You are working with global industry players on a sustainable card program. How would you explain what this is about in very simple terms?

Ajay Bhalla: At Mastercard, we don’t want to just educate card producers and users on the net waste contribution of plastic cards; we want to drive industry-wide change to ensure that greener cards become the norm. So at the very heart of our sustainable card program, we have developed the world’s first directory of certified sustainable card materials and information on where to source them. 

We’ve applied the full scale and scope of our business, technology, partnerships, and people to pioneer this initiative. Mastercard’s DigiSec Lab, our global product innovation and security hub based in the UK, is assessing the durability and security of sustainable materials for cards, using cutting-edge technology to test the physical and chemical properties of materials with sustainability claims, so that we can confidently attest to their green credentials.

Through this new directory, our aim is to ensure sustainable vendor materials are available for all card issuers globally, and that sustainable choice becomes the preferred option for all financial institutions worldwide.

The Mastercard Sustainable Materials Directory is the first milestone in a multi-year effort laddering up to the launch of Mastercard’s global certification scheme – effectively a “green mark” for sustainable cards.  

VA: I understand the goal is to reduce first-use PVC plastic in card manufacturing, which is in line with the Greener Payments Partnership formed in 2018. What’s the difference between an eco-friendly card and a PVC debit card, which makes up most of what we have available today?

Ajay Bhalla: An eco-friendly card is made from materials that are ethically sourced, bio-sourced, ocean sourced, or chlorine-free. This includes degradable PVC, which breaks down at a faster rate than traditional PVCs in composting sites, rPVC which uses some recycled content, and rHDPE which is recycled from ocean-bound waste. The Mastercard Sustainable Materials Directory has details and recommendations on more than 30 sustainable products that banks can use to connect to card manufacturers and make eco-friendly cards – each of which is tested by a rigorous scientific process, meaning every single sustainable card will have the same levels of usability and security as ones made of the existing common materials.

VA: Does the shift to environmental best practices come at an extra cost or have an adverse organizational impact? While it’s still very much “business-as-usual” for many organizations, how would you sell the importance of ensuring a pollution-free environment, especially as some consider it a hindrance to profit-making?

Ajay Bhalla: At Mastercard, we invest heavily across our business to ensure the integrity of payments while also contributing to a more sustainable future. Developing new materials typically do come with an additional cost; but by accrediting the vendors and materials that meet our Mastercard standards, we are encouraging healthy competition to win issuers business with the right materials to suit their consumers’ needs. Within a couple of years, we would expect the cost of some sustainable cards to be comparable to current PVC cards, where the volume and the competitive marketplace has dictated better costs. 

The key incentive for organizations to make the switch to sustainable card choices, besides being the right thing to do, is that we know that it matters to consumers. More than three-quarters of people around the world say they’re “very concerned” about the environment, and 96 percent of them believe that personal actions like donating, recycling, or buying ethically can make a real difference in the world [Nilson Report, September 2018]. We’re helping them do just that. 

VA: Mastercard’s sustainable card offerings are available to consumers in over 12 countries and 60+ financial institutions have issued cards with approved materials. That is a considerable success but have you faced any challenges or issues with the new cards program so far?

Ajay Bhalla: The Mastercard Sustainable Materials Directory has been a considerable success to date – already, our sustainable card offerings are used by consumers in over a dozen countries globally and more than 60 leading financial institutions (including Mauritius Commercial Bank) have issued cards with approved materials. Our ambitions certainly don’t stop here –  across the industry, we want to help make sustainable cards the default rather than the exception through the continued expansion of our directory for banks around the world.

VA: What happens when these new cards expire?

Ajay Bhalla: Upon expiry, consumers are typically currently advised to cut up their cards and dispose of them in their bins at home. Today, we are working with banks to support them with programs that assist their customers with the in-branch recycling of old cards. And as we work towards new materials that are bio-degradable or recyclable, these recommendations might change to allow for safe and secure disposal of the cards in a more eco-friendly manner, according to the type of material used. 

Ajay Bhalla, Mastercard President of Cyber and Intelligence.

VA: There’s been a rollout in Mauritius, where there was a recent oil spill that laid bare the issue of environmental pollution. In Africa at large, what benefits are the eco-friendly cards bringing to the region in relation to such incidents?

Ajay Bhalla: Our sustainable card program allows banks – in Africa and beyond – to augment their sustainability initiatives with a systemic change to their supply chain and ultimately offer more eco-friendly cards to consumers.  This approach is better for the environment, it’s better for business and it meets evolving consumer needs.

We believe only meaningful and lasting change will protect the environment for generations to come. But no one organization has the solution to tackle this issue alone, so we need to work together. We passionately believe that everyone can – and must – contribute. Eliminating first-use plastics in payment cards is one way Mastercard can make a difference.

VA: Can you give a sneak peek into the planned Mastercard global certification scheme for approved sustainable cards?

Ajay Bhalla: Mastercard’s global certification scheme will be a “green mark” for sustainable cards. The main aim of the scheme is to ensure that when a Mastercard product is associated with a sustainability claim, it is Feasible, Meaningful, and Sincere. These three central pillars will give confidence to Mastercard, our customers, and the wider industry that steps are being taken to address the urgent environmental challenges related to the use of single-use plastics and that Mastercard products can be used without fear of false or exaggerated claims. The scheme will enable a number of processes in addition to those already in use, including a formal remote assessment procedure to validate claims and conformity. It will also assess the vendor’s Environmental Management System (EMS) to ensure reliability.

VA: In the financial services industry, does the key to sustainability lie solely in sustainable cards? Or can you cite other examples of how sustainable choices can be made across all payment rails?

Ajay Bhalla: Sustainable cards are one choice and we continue to invest in new technology and resources to bring new learnings and insight into the global market in support of sustainable choice across all payment rails. Of course, digital cards are a very valuable and environmentally-friendly choice. But they aren’t currently available in all markets for all consumers. And some people will continue to opt for a physical alternative, even where digital cards are available.

VA: At Mastercard, you are trying to tackle issues such as climate change and environmental sustainability – how do these issues relate to or affect business growth?

Ajay Bhalla: We believe business must play a significant role in helping the planet thrive. Because economic growth cannot come at the expense of the planet. 

We’re focused on going beyond reducing and offsetting our environmental footprint to actively regenerate the natural resources upon which continued business growth relies. In addition to developing sustainable products and services, we are also leveraging the power and reach of our global network – convening powerful partnerships and coalitions dedicated to solving major environmental challenges through systems-level change. Earlier this year, Mastercard launched the Priceless Planet Coalition as a platform to unite corporate sustainability efforts and make meaningful investments to preserve the environment. 

VA: In what other ways is Mastercard looking to help ensure environmental sustainability and how does this aid economic development in Africa?

Ajay Bhalla: Our mission is to create products, services, partnerships, and experiences that enable consumers and businesses to make sustainable choices that are better for their communities, societies, and the planet. Mastercard was the first payments company to set an approved science-based target to reduce carbon emissions from our operations and supply chain and maximize carbon-free energy generation. This is reviewed externally to ensure we are helping the world meet the Paris Agreement goals. We’re committed to 100% renewable electricity for our global operations and 77 percent of waste in our owned facilities is recycled, diverted, or composted. Our “Do Good” Donations Platform empowers consumers to take action and support sustainability causes that align with their values.

VA: Moving forward, how does Mastercard plan to continue driving its corporate sustainability values?

Ajay Bhalla: We’re committed to being a force for good in the world and doing well by doing good. We continue to convene powerful partnerships and coalitions dedicated to solving major environmental challenges through fundamental, systems-level change. This includes our Priceless Planet Coalition and also City Possible, a new model of public-private partnerships that brings together cities with a united private sector to advance sustainable cities.


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