21st century “green” stamps

When I interviewed Steve Case last month at GreenBiz’s VERGE conference in DC., he told me that we are entering a second Internet revolution. I’ve been thinking about that since then, and not only to do I think he is right–I think the rise of social networks and the mobile Internet may be the best things to happen to sustainable business in a long time.

They create enormous opportunities for companies, consumers and NGOs to connect people in new ways. The whole idea of the sharing economy, which I’ve written about lately (here and here and here), is built on social networking and the mobile web. So are Good Guide, Climate Counts and KnowMore.org. I’ve been impressed by the power of change.org to affect corporate practices.

Last week, I wrote a story for GE’s ecomagination website about three companies —  RecycleBank, Opower,and Practically Green — that are built on Internet platforms and using incentives in intriguing ways to change consumer behavior. For some reason they reminded me of the “green stamps” that my mom used to save when I was a kid. Here’s how the story begins:

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.

You can read the rest here.

 

Comments

  1. This will date me but I soooo remember Green Stamps. At one point I pasted in stamps to a dozen or so books (with my mother’s help, no doubt). Then we set off in the car to the redemption center in the next town to buy… ? What? I don’t remember. I wish it had been about recycling or saving energy back then. Childhood habits stick with you.

  2. Not to be a downer here, but can’t you use social networks and the mobile Internet to do the exact opposite as well? i.e. get people to buy more stuff and use/waste more resources? Isn’t that what most online ventures are set up to do — the great examples to the contrary that you list here notwithstanding?

    Not sure any of this will make a difference unless we can fundamentally redirect market forces.

    • Marc Gunther says:

      Gernot, I don’t think anyone believes that these voluntary measures can by themselves have a really big impact–although I would argue that the combination of consumer and NGO pressure can be very powerful. Look at what’s just happened with Apple’s supply chain in China. Climate change is, of course, a much more intractable issue. You should read my book, Suck It Up!

  3. Very cool information! I like that the idea of “drop by drop a pot is filled,” how attracting people to these sites and inspiring them to be “more green” can have a beneficial impact over time.

    Gernot, in my opinion, the human race as whole won’t just suddenly change all together, they need small steps to get them headed in the right direction. It took us…how many decades & centuries to become this wasteful? It’ll take time (hopefull a MUCH shorter time span) to “redirect market forces.” These websites already DO make a difference, small steps… :)

  4. Ed Reid says:

    The current approach to “redirect market forces” appears to rely on removing all market options deemed to be unacceptable and then letting market forces affect choices among those options deemed acceptable. This is apparently the progressive definition of a free market. One wonders why the “masses” are not flocking to adopt this approach, since it seeks only to make them better.

    • Marc Gunther says:

      There’s no coercion here, Ed. Just a combination of transparency and incentives. No “unacceptable market options” are being removed. I would think that a conservative guy like you would applaud a voluntary approach like this.

      • Ed Reid says:

        Marc,

        I was responding directly to the “redirect market forces” in Wagner’s comment and your reply. I certainly have no problem with market participants taking voluntary actions which redirect markets over time. I detected a lack of confidence in and patience for this approach, particularly in Wagner’s comment.

        In a broader context, the recent EPA action to remove coal from the US power generation energy mix, by requiring a maximum level of CO2 emissions which is not achievable with commercially available, demonstrated technology, is an example of removing “unacceptable market options”. The same could be said of the “free reproductive services” mandate under PPACA.

  5. As an aside, I thought that Web 2.0 was the “second Internet revolution” – Tim O’Reilly did a great job arguing that starting in about 2003 – is Steve Case dismissing or disagreeing with that?

    • Marc Gunther says:

      I don’t know, Sibley. My guess is that Steve wasn’t paying attention. So maybe the effort to disrupt/change three big intractable industries–education, health care and energy–that really have not much much affected yet by the Internet will be revolution No. 3.

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