Social Networks Goad Greenies Into Good Behavior

Marc Gunther | Tue Mar 27 2012

If you remember S&H Green Stamps you’re probably over 50. If you don’t, ask your parents or grandparents. They’ll tell you about the little green stamps they collected when shopping at supermarkets or buying gas, then pasted into books and eventually redeemed for rewards like a clock radio or a set of kitchen knives. Green Stamps, which were popular from the 1930s through the 1980s, showed that even small incentives change the way people behave, showing the way for the airline frequent-flier miles, credit-card points and Starbucks Rewards that followed.

Today, RecycleBankPractically Green and Opower, among others, are offering a 21st century version of green stamps –but with a twist. They are providing financial or intangible rewards that are intended to promote environmentally-friendly behaviors, such as recycling, biking to work or washing clothes in cold water. No licking of stamps necessary. Instead, consumer track their results on websites, smart phones or Facebook, competing with friends or piling up points for their own use. Think of it as social networking for the save-the-world set. [In fact, you can register for each of these companies through Facebook.]

The companies are privately-held, so they don’t release financial results, but anecdotal evidence indicates that they are making a difference. RecycleBank, which began in 2004, rewards people for recycling household waste; it has driven up recycling rates among the 2 million or so people who participate in its curbside recycling program. Opower, which launched in 2007, has found that homeowners reduce their electricity usage by about 2% after they are shown how well (or poorly) they are doing compared to their neighbors, and given energy-saving tips. Practically Green is just over a year old, but it already has tens of thousands of people who report back on their green actions, competing with friends or against themselves.

All of these companies share a philosophy that runs counter to the doom and gloom of some environmentalists: to promote greener behavior, prizes and games are more effective than guilt trips.

“Rewards for everyday green actions”

“RecycleBank was born out of a simple and powerful idea: If you incent people to recycle more, they will do just that,” says Jonathan Hsu, the company’s CEO. Typically, it works like this: Homeowners or renters get an RFID chip for their recycling cart; the amount they recycle is weighed, and results fed back to their tally on the Recyclebank website. The more they recycle, the more points they get to spend at Recyclebank partners, which include retailers (Walmart and Best Buy), brands (Coca-Cola and Bumble Bee), and restaurants (Olive Garden and Panera). More than 300 communities in 29 states work with RecycleBank because the government agencies save money by diverting trash out of landfills and into recycling centers.

It’s hard to isolate the impact of RecycleBank on people’s behavior because it’s often combined with other improvements to recycling systems, like single-stream recycling, which enables homeowners to recycle bottles, cans and newspapers in a single bin. But the company says, as an example, that Corpus Christi, Texas, increased its recycling tonnages from 240 to 1,103 tons per month during the first year of the RecycleBank program; on a household level, recycling pounds went from 67 pounds per year to 311 pounds per year.

RecycleBank now has bigger ambitions. “We want to reward people for taking everyday green actions,” Hsu says. He would like RecycleBank points to become a “green currency” that people can earn by taking quizzes or watching educational videos-–all of them sponsored, of course–or doing business on such websites as Zumbox, a digital mail service, and blissmo, which sells eco-friendly products.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Opower takes a different approach, relying on people’s competitive instincts–and their desire to save money–to motivate them. “People waste, in their homes, up to 20 percent of their energy,” says Alex Laskey, OPower’s president and co-founder. “The heat is left on when they’re not home. The AC is left on. Lights are left on.” Homes are poorly insulated, appliances are ineffective and electronics that are plugged in but not in use draw vampire power.

By mailing utility customers personalized reports on their energy consumption–and then by comparing them with their neighbors–people can be persuaded to save energy. “If I tell you that you’ve spent $1,200 on heating this year, you don’t know what that means,” says Dan Yates, Opower’s CEO. “But if we tell you that you spent $500 more than your neighbor, that tells you something.” OPower now reaches about 10 million homes in North America; its customers are utilities in about 20 states where regulators reward them for promote energy efficiency.

Practically Green, for its part, relies more on emotional than financial rewards. Susan Hunt Stevens, the founder, saw what LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards had done for buildings and wondered: “Why isn’t there a LEED for people, a LEED for daily life?” Practically Green invites people to rate themselves and gives them points for taking a wide variety of actions, ranging from installing insulation to switching to e-bills to eating less meat.

“I believe that recognition matters more than rewards,” Stevens says. “We can share, we can compare, we can compete and we can collaborate. When it’s people you know who are changing, that’s even more inspiring and motivating.” Some people have described Practically Green as the Foursquare for green living, where members check in every time they take a green action.

By themselves, these business won’t move the needle on global issues like climate. That requires government action or technology breakthroughs. But Practically Green, OPower and RecycleBank are all betting that small actions can add up over time. Says Jonathan Hsu: “Understanding the full context of one’s action—that actually is the motivating factor. Day to day, I think all of us want to feel we’re part of something bigger.”

Top image: Courtesy RecycleBank