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Green Gamification Takes Root in the Big Apple

In my green lexicon, "gamification" gets a special prize: it's among the clunkiest words to enter the sustainability conversation, yet may just have some of the greatest potential to alter the behavior of consumers, employees and households.

Businesses are fast picking up on the promise. Gamification has unique synergy with green behaviors, with a knack for turning virtuous green actions -- such as carpooling or switching to CFLs -- from worthy but kinda joyless chores into tasks that earn rewards, gain recognition, and can turn ambivalent consumers into eager eco evangelists.

As part of Social Media Week's sprawling, 12-city lollapalooza of digital media events, the New York series included a panel entitled "Gamification: Combining Social Media & Game Mechanics to Promote Sustainability" that I caught late last week.

The panel brought together two recently sprouted startups with two established green brands.

Practically Green and The Mutual are both building businesses predicated on the power of gamification to alter green behavior, attract advertisers, and help organizations spur change.

Joining them were two groundbreaking companies, each born from innovative new approaches to recycling, Recyclebank and TerraCycle, each of which is increasingly using gamification to extend its reach.

Here's a quick run down of how these companies talked about how gamification is changing their businesses.

A Social Media Approach to Greener Behaviors

Practically Green helps organizations become greener by using technology and social networking to educate, motivate and reward people for making green changes to their work and home life.

Conceived in 2009, founder Susan Hunt Stevens took her inspiration for the Boston-based company from LEED, the exhaustive guide to designing and building greener buildings.

But instead of LEED's focus on building insulation or low-flow faucets, Stevens' approach tallies up over 400 green behaviors, from commuting by bike to buying local produce.

Speaking on the panel, Stevens described the program as "LEED meets Weight Watchers," for its blend of points and behavioral reinforcement through peer groups.

One of the challenges with sustainability, Stevens said, is that communicating how and why to do it is tricky. "The content can be technically complex. Some of it is political for some folks. And much of it is preachy." Gamification breaks down the complexity into small, learnable steps, and depoliticizes the issue, she added.

Working with large organizations including NBC Universal, Eileen Fisher and the Seattle Mariners, Practically Green customizes workplace programs where staff sign in, and register their green behaviors, earning points and badges along the way.

For companies looking at ambitious sustainability programs, Stevens said, the program offers a easy-to-deploy, web-based solution that can quickly speed up employee involvement with green programs. This, by the way, is one way Practically Green earns revenue: charging a dollar or so per month per employee to companies it engages with.

(For more, Practically Green's Stevens spoke with Chrissy Coughlin for Nature of Business Radio here at GreenBiz last September.)

'Groupon for Good'

Not yet a year old, The Mutual is a Brooklyn-based startup that has been called "The Groupon for good."

To join, a member picks a pledge level -- say $10 per month -- and a charity to steer the donations towards: options include think tanks such as World Resources Institute, conservationists such as Oceana, and climate groups like

The Mutual, in turn, relays four-fifths of the donation to your charity, and uses the remainder -- a share that's on par, or less, than the take of a typical charity fundraiser for overhead -- to grow its network of members and business partners.

Members, in turn, are rewarded with perks from business members looking to connect with a big pool of green-minded consumers.

For example, using FourSquare, I checked into a recent Mutual event at Brooklyn Brewery, and thereby qualified for a contest, discounts at the brewery, and earned points online at

"I describe us as a social enterprise that rewards people for donating to charity with Perks from great brands," said founder and CEO Dan Vallejo.

The startup is scaling fast, with the bulk of early participants from the Bay Area, New York and Boston.

Green Gamification's Greatest Success Story

Now eight years old, Recyclebank offers one of the best known success stories in the power of green gamification.

Recyclebank's original business -- and still its core offering -- is an ingenious system that rewards household recycling. It does so by tracking and identifying how much recycling a given household is putting out on the curb.

In around 300 cities in the U.S. and U.K., public garbage trucks automatically weigh recycling bins, use radio tags to identify which home the material came from, and records the transaction to a web site. Consumers can then track the volume of their recycling online.

That's all well and good, but the real carrot is the points that the recycling earns for the household. The more a home recycles, the more points they earn.

Consumers can convert those points with a network of scores of well known brands that participate in the tracking program, offering perks that can be redeemed for products and services from the likes of WalMart, Coca Cola to Procter & Gamble, to Bed Bath & Beyond.

The model has proved scalable and increasingly adaptable. Cities like it because it boosts recycling rates, which lowers their landfill costs since more trash is diverted to reuse. Consumers, and especially households where kids get highly involved, like the rewards scheme. And the marketing partners are on board for access to consumers who have proven be top quality prospects, with a high likelihood of redeeming the perks, using the products, and spending more.

That was just the beginning though. In recent years, as Samantha Skey, Recyclebank's chief revenue officer, told attendees, Recyclebank is proving its business model works for more than just recycling.

The company is expanding its business model, marketing partnerships, and web technology to extend to many other frontiers of green behavior, such as e-waste recycling, responsible junk disposal, and energy reduction.

Growing from Worm Poop to Packaging Reuse

TerraCycle, the Newark, N.J. based brand has evolved into a $20 million-a-year operation, since it was founded in 2001 by Princeton University dropout Tom Szasky.

In a few short years, the company has pivoted but not abandoned its original focus on "worm poop" fertilizer -- the innovative organic plant food, packed in recycled bottle, that was brewed from worm-rich compost piles -- towards a broader focus on packaging reduction and reuse.

Partnering with schools and numerous major consumer packaged good companies, TerraCycle is capturing both pre- and post-consumer packaging waste to upcycle it: such as converting Capri sun bags into satchels, pencil cases, and other merchandise.

What's the gamification angle here? Albe Zakes, TerraCycle's global vice president, media relations, explained: Since TerraCycle's community skews heavily towards kids and moms, a teachable-game fit the bill.

Partnering with Manhattan-based Guerillapps, TerraCycle developed Trash Tycoon. Played in Facebook, players earn points, and privileges by cleaning up a small town, and building sustainable businesses from the trash. It works like a mash-up between SimCity and Farmville, but with a decidedly green wrinkles., for instance, provides real-time news feeds of eco-current events that appear in the game.

Customized to help kids learn about waste and recycling, Zakes explained the game is being customized so that virtual activity mirrors and reinforces the real-world efforts of its classroom brigades, the groups of school kids who raise funds -- and compete with other class groups -- by recycling packaging materials.

Balancing Real and Virtual to Boost Sustainability

Threading through the discussion was a concern that converting virtual do-gooderism into real world action is a challenge. The panelists acknowledged that there's a risk that they may be able to induce a player to click a mouse -- say, to "like" a green action, or to win a badge -- but may not be able to actually spur that person to do the deed.

In Practically Green, Stevens explained, finding the mix of virtual incentives and balancing them against real world programs in the workplace is as much art than science. What's more, she said, the workplace is a powerful arena in which to educate and stimulate such behaviors, because many people are driven more by peer perception in work environments than they are in their private lives.

This spurs competitive behaviors and, interestingly, lowers the risk of false claims where folks claim to have completed a green task, such as recycling their office paper: "Their friends and colleagues know, and they notice, and will call out their friends if they're cheating," explained Stevens.

For TerraCycle, which built its business in part from the fabric of social dynamics at schools, Zakes explained its game actually complements and extends an existing foundation of existing actions.

Still, at the splash screen of the game, there's this encouragement: "Trash Tycoon is great, but make sure to get outside and collect some actual recycleables once in a while."

Held in collaboration with Baruch College's Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity at the City University of New York (CUNY), the panel was curated by Ashok Kamal (a graduate of Ziklin's MBA program) who co-founded Bennu, which provides social media marketing for green businesses.

For a broader look at the origins and breadth of gamification, check out Kamal's overview of the gamification phenomenon here in GreenBiz.

Last but not least, you can watch a video of the full panel presentation from Social Media Week through the group's website. Scroll to the very bottom of the page, where you’ll find two video links. The lower of the two is the first 90 minutes, including the four company presentations. The video above that is the final half hour, comprised mostly of Q&A.

Joystick photo via Shutterstock.

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