Today I listened to an article in the NY Times called The Man Who Turned Credit-Card Points Into an Empire which was about loyalty programs and their rewards, particularly free travel, and their inner workings. While I have some familiarity with this because of our own Chase rewards credit card, I was astonished to learn about the enormous industry behind these programs. For example, the article explains how airlines sell points to banks who then offer those to their customers (and potential customers) as benefits for using their credit card. For airlines, this business of selling points to banks is actually more reliably profitable than people paying directly for flights.
Loyalty programs have been successful largely because they leverage different behavioral economics principles, like status, switching costs and the attractiveness of “free”. People are drawn in by travel incentives (myself included) and will spend in order to earn free trips or stick to one airline to achieve special status.
Of course, we can’t see all the inner workings and consequences of this industry and this article unearthed many questions to consider about its negative impacts. For this post though, I want to consider the insights about why loyalty programs work and pose the hypothetical questions:
What if the environment had a loyalty program?
An urgent problem we need to solve is how to protect and revitalize our environment, not how to score free air travel (or encourage spending if you’re a credit card). Just like these programs encourage spending, how can we leverage many of our natural human behaviors to encourage positive actions for the environment? How might we make “spending time outdoors” as compelling as “free travel”?
Does it already have a loyalty program of sorts?
Caring for the environment and enjoying God’s creation actually does provide us benefits, but they just aren’t as obvious as quantifiable a “points” total. I am not familiar with the multitudes of research out there, but I know that being in nature can benefit our physical and mental health. And, even if we do it with altruistic intentions, caring for the environment can also make us feel good/accomplished/fulfilled. What would it take to help ourselves and others recognize these “rewards”?