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 and Climate Counts. 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.


Recylebank: It’s not just trash to cash

Recyclebank is on a roll.

The New York-based company that rewards people for recycling their household garbage last week announced a $20 million strategic investment from Waste Management, the nation’s largest trash hauler.

As part of the investment, Waste Management said it expects to provide access to Recyclebank’s green rewards program to its nearly 20 million customers in North America.

Currently, Recyclebank has about three million members, so this is a big deal.

Jonathan Hsu

But there’s more to the story, as I learned last week when I interviewed Jonathan Hsu, Recyclebank’s CEO, at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco.

Recyclebank has bigger ambitions than turning trash to cash. It’s seeking to become a Internet marketing platform that will reward people for engaging in more environmentally friendly behavior. Its members will be able to earn rewards points by using energy more efficiently at home, reducing water usage, by buying greener products, even by walking to work instead of driving.

This makes Recyclebank a very interesting company to watch, because it is betting big on the green consumer–a risky but promising strategy. [click to continue…]

Stuff, and how to think about it

I hope your home doesn’t look like this. If it does, stop reading, shut down your computer and start cleaning–now!

Seriously, though, how much time, effort, money and brainspace do you devote to stuff? Buying it, taking care of it, thinking about it, arranging it, rearranging it, throwing it away, buying more…you get the idea.

I think about consumption a lot–as part of my job and part of my life. We’ll never stop consuming–it’s part of our DNA, I imagine–but for the global economy to become sustainable, we need to find ways to consume in new ways that don’t pollute and deplete the earth’s resources.

But how, in the meantime, should we approach our personal consumption? Recently (thanks to Ian Yolles of RecycleBank) I came across an essay by the writer Bruce Sterling, called the Last Viridian Note, which, as best as I can tell, is the conclusion of a more than decade-long effort to rethink design. In  2000, Sterling released the Viridian Manifesto, which he has described as an attempt to use design “to end our substance-abuse problem with fossil fuels.”

We’ll leave for another day the question of whether changing our personal consumption habits has much impact on the planet. (Hint: It doesn’t, at least not until many, many millions of us do so, not just here in the U.S. but in China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc.) But changing our habits–which begins by being purposeful about what we buy–will change our lives.

In the Last Viridian Note, Sterling begins by saying this his ” personal relations to goods and services – especially goods – have been revolutionized” and led him to a “different mode of being in the world.” Historically, he says, “material goods were  inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship” so it made sense to hold onto them. No more–now they can become a burden:

The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not “economize.” Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It’s melting the North Pole. So “economization” is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don’t seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It’s in your time most, it’s in your space most. It is “where it is at,” and it is “what is going on.”

[click to continue…]

How to “green” a plastic bag

You’ve heard of “carbon offsets”?

Get ready for “garbage offsets.”

In an effort to make its Ziploc plastic bags as environmentally friendly as possible, consumer-products company SC Johnson has joined forces with RecycleBank to keep more than 100 million pounds of waste out of landfills during the next two years. [click to continue…]

Trash talk, and the Internet

Incentives work. Every economist knows that, as do most parents (“clean your room and I’ll buy you an ice cream”).

Until recently, there have been few incentives to recycle. So recycling rates have been more or less steady for years.

That’s changing, largely because of the Internet and its power to efficiently collect, manage and distribute information.

In a column called The Internet of Trash for the News@Cisco website, I write about the ways a company called RecycleBank and a unit of Waste Management called Greenopolis are using data, the Internet and social media to  reward people who recycle.

Here’s how the story begins:

“Garbage,” says the character played by Andie MacDowell in the 1989 movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. We’ve got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Uh, no. Trash may have piled up in the late 1980s—this was the time when a barge called the Mobro carried 3,000 tons of solid waste from New York to Belize and back because there was no place to put it—but Americans lately have been throwing away less stuff, and recycling more.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Internet is a big reason why.  Digital music, for example, means fewer CD cases wind up in the trash. Email and online shopping, meanwhile, reduce the flow of letters and catalogs; mail volumes in the U.S. have fallen from 211 billion pieces in 2005 to 170 million in 2010, according to the annual reports issued by the U.S. Postal Service [PDF, downloads].

The Internet is also enabling innovation around recycling. Two ventures–a startup company called RecycleBank and a new division of Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler, called Greenopolis – are using digital technology to give people economic incentives to recycle. Both are pay dividends—literally and for the planet, by extracting value from waste that would otherwise be buried in a landfill.

Big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that have reputational issues tied to litter  are working with RecycleBank and Greenopolis to promote recycling. You can read the rest of the story here.

Now if only local governments would find ways to either (1) penalize people who throw away lots of stuff by charging them more or (2) reward people who recycle more, we’d drive up recycling rates further. That would move us just a bit closer to a zero-waste economy where nothing is thrown away and everything is made into somethings else. The idea here isn’t merely to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the concept of waste. Kind of like nature.

Glimpsing the future at Net Impact 2010

My favorite conference is Net Impact’s annual gathering, mostly because of the crowd—this weekend, about 2,500 people, most of them MBA students, undergrads and young professionals, gathered at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. These fare the smart, passionate and committed business leaders of tomorrow. I’m proud to be on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that helps its members harness the power of business for the greater good.

So much programming is crammed into the two-day event that it can’t be captured in a single blogpost or experienced by anyone, because dozens of sessions on different topics unfold simultaneously. But here are a few highlights:

What’s the future of recycling? It’s an unhappy fact that recycling rates haven’t moved up much since Earth Day. Yes, the original Earth Day, back in 1990. But innovative companies like TerraCycle, RecycleBank and Waste Management–yes, Waste Management, through a subsidiary called Greenopolis–are experimenting with clever and promising new ways to move the needle, by rewarding consumers for recycling.

I first wrote about RecycleBank in 2007. [See Turning trash into cash at Fortune.com] The company measures homeowners’ curbside recycling, and then rewards those who recycle with points that can be redeemed for stuff at more than 1,500 companies. “The idea of consumer behavior change is at the heart of our business,” said Ian Yolles, the chief marketing officer at RecycleBank, who previously worked at Nike and The Body Shop. The company is growing–it now operates in more than 300 communities in 26 states — and its investors include Coca-Cola,  venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins and Generation Investment Management (the fund led by Al Gore and ex-Goldman partner David Blood). RecycleBank generates most its revenues by saving municipalities money (lower tipping fees, higher revenue streams from recycling) and taking a share of the savings. [click to continue…]

Why eBay is a green giant

“These are J. Crew pants,” Amy Skoczlas Cole tells me, pointing at the gray slacks she’s wearing. “I bought them on eBay. A season old, worn once by the seller is what she told me. I’m not going to tell you what I paid for them, but I got a great deal.”

This is called walking the talk. Amy is head of  the eBay Green Team and a lifelong environmentalist, who spent nearly 15 years at Conservation International before joining the Silicon Valley e-commerce giant.

eBayGreenTeamSo, I asked her, did you buy the used pants because you work at eBay or because you are an environmentalist?

Neither, it turns out.  “I bought them,” she replied, “because I wanted a great deal on J. Crew pants.”

eBay, it turns out, is a unique position to do what other big companies and even big environmental groups cannot: It can urge people to consume less.

This is important because, despite what the sellers of compact fluorescent bulbs, stainless steel water bottles, bamboo bed sheets, and eco-friendly dish sponges will tell you, I’ve never believed we could shop our way to a greener planet. To the contrary: Buying more stuff depletes natural resources and generates carbon emissions, pollution and waste. Conventional consumption is a problem, not a solution. (See Wanted: A Cultural Revolution.)

But shopping on eBay, arguably, is different. One mantra of environmentalism is reduce, reuse and recycle. And no one–not even Goodwill or the Salvation Army–does more to promote reuse than eBay. EBay sells $2,000 worth of  junk previously-owned merchandise per second, Amy tells me. “Barely used is as good as new” is how the company puts it in commercials like this one. Or, as she says: “The greenest product is the one that already exists.”

“Our single minded mission is to build a movement in society to use what already exists,” Amy says. “Very few companies can stand up and say to consumers, let’s use what exists in the world today.”

Interestingly, eBay has begun to explore the idea of “sustainable consumption” — if that’s not an oxymoron. [click to continue…]

In search of the perfect (Coke) bottle

plantbottle1Since joining The Coca-Cola Co. in 1997, Scott Vitters has gone to work most days with one question on his mind:

“How do we get to our vision of a 100% renewable, 100% recyclable bottle?”

It’s a simple question, with anything but a  simple answer—getting to a renewable, zero-waste bottle requires technology breakthroughs, favorable economics that will drive recycling, changes in human behavior and supporting policy from governments around the country, if not around the world.

This winter, though, Coca-Cola is taking a meaningful  step towards its goal with the introduction of what it calls a PlantBottle – a bottle made of PET plastic, 30% of which is sourced from Brazilian sugar cane and molasses.

That puts Coke on the road to 100% renewable.

PET, meanwhile, is 100% recyclable—although actual recycling rates are far lower.

It’s a start.

“It’s incredibly exciting for us to be able to see a route forward to zero waste,” says Vitters, who is head of global sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola. [click to continue…]