The TH Interview: Michael Kieschnick, President of Working Assets

Back before it was considered hip or socially responsible to allow consumers to guide a firm's green investments by voting with their wallets, Working Assets - a progressive company based in San Francisco, CA - was leading the way with its innovative "green" credit card. The company pledges to donate 10¢ to tree planting and alternative energy groups - such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Bluewater Network and Rocky Mountain Institute - every time you buy gas with the card and will donate a further 10¢ to nonprofit organizations for all other purchases. Doesn't sound like much? Last year alone its members helped raise almost $5 million for various nonprofit groups, and the company has donated $50 million since its inception in 1985 - including close to $10 million to environmental groups.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the card is its unlikely source of inspiration – a little known story Michael Kieschnick, Working Assets’ president, was only too happy to share with us when we sat down for an interview a few days ago. He and fellow Working Assets co-founder Peter Barnes first came up with the idea a few years ago after seeing Lee Iacocca – the former chairman of Chrysler Corp. – hawking an American Express card as part of an extensive ad blitz the company had just rolled out, pledging to donate a portion of its proceeds (about one thousandth on every cent) to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. As he recounted it, the first thought that occurred to both he and Barnes upon seeing the ad was: "We can do better."Having already worked with many non-profits over the years, Kieschnick and Barnes were keenly aware of the funding issues they often encountered and took it upon themselves to create a credit card that would provide them with financial support over the long haul - an idea that eventually became the basis for their current model. Now that their credit card has essentially become one of the de facto standards for other companies’ recent entries into the field - including GE’s Ecomagination credit card - we asked Kieschnick what his thoughts were on the green wave currently washing over the business community.

Crediting a massive shift in public opinion brought about by a confluence of factors - including Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the Congress’ inaction on the issues of climate change and energy - he praised the efforts of companies moving to address their consumers’ eco-concerns as more than simple green-washing. Though he readily acknowledged that many of these companies still carried a legacy of pernicious actions towards the environment - making them particularly vulnerable to accusations of green-washing - they could begin overcoming them by coming clean and subjecting themselves to newer, more rigorous standards. New companies, he advised, should be completely transparent about their green initiatives and actions from the start.

The best way for companies to cultivate an informed, loyal customer base - particularly now that public opinion has shifted dramatically in efforts to conserve energy and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions - was to encourage them to volunteer and become activists, an objective Working Assets has always striven to make a central part of its organization. As Kieschnick put it, donations alone are simply not enough: companies should also be actively encouraging consumers to become more knowledgeable about the pressing issues of the day and to take part in national campaigns and initiatives.

One that he has been a staunch advocate for in recent months is Step it Up - a citizen's campaign to urge Congress to take on climate change that we've mentioned several times on TH (he even dressed up as a polar bear for one of the events). Another initiative in which he has invested a tremendous amount of time and energy is Working Assets’ own 2008 voter registration campaign - an effort that allows its customers to make contributions that will reach minorities, single women and the poor and encourage them to cast a vote. Contributions made online or through phone bills up to $500,000 will be matched dollar for dollar.

And that's not all: Kieschnick also told us that Working Assets is set to announce the release of two new eco-friendly products - a solar powered charger (in partnership with Solio) and what he's calling the first "carbon neutral phone." In essence, when new customers sign up for service with Working Assets Wireless, the company will make a one-time purchase from Carbonfund.org to offset their household carbon emissions for one year - which they estimate equates to about 10 tons.

While Kieschnick remains hopeful about the long-term prospects for the green movement, he holds a more pessimistic view about the effects climate change will exert on our planet over the next 25-30 years – essentially, that things will get worse before they get better (though we will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel). He believes that venture capitalists and other large firms will continue pouring money into cleaner, renewable technologies and that the inevitable rise in oil prices will continue to make those investments viable and necessary. Energy efficiency, conservation and sustainability will continue driving much of our public policy discourse, and Kieschnick expects those to have an even larger influence in the coming decades.

Tags: Carbon Offsets | TH Interview