Using social networks to spur greener behavior

[Editor update: Opower released a new Facebook app on Tuesday that will enable energy customers -- some 20 million households served by 16 utilities -- to automatically upload their energy-use data to their Facebook page so they can compare that information with their friends.]

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 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, paving the way for the airline frequent-flier miles, credit-card points and Starbucks Rewards that followed.

Today,  RecycleBank, Practically Green and Opower, among others, are offering a 21st century version of green stamps -- but with a twist. They're 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, smartphones 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're 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 percent 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 of the story about motivating greener behavior via rewards, competition and recognition here.

Photo of ring of hands by LeventeGyori via Shutterstock.