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Two Steps Forward

Recyclebank and the Greening of the Mass Market

If a green ethic ever breaks out among the masses, there's a good chance we'll have Recyclebank to thank. The seven-year-old company, backed by some A-list venture capital firms, is hellbent on nudging millions of people along a greener path, and making a bundle along the way. It just may pull it off.

In a nutshell, Recyclebank provides incentives to households that recycle and take other green measures, rewarding them with points that can be redeemed for discounts and coupons from national and local brands and retailers. Points also can be donated to support environmental education in schools. It's the "carrot" end of the carrot-and-stick motivation metaphor. The challenge, of course, is to get enough people doing enough things that actually moves the needle of environmental progress.

Nudging the masses is no small task. As I've written extensively over the years, Americans have been highly resistant to change -- at least when it comes to habits that reduce their environmental footprint. Recycling has caught on to the extent that many people recycling at least something, though hardly all they could. Energy conservation is being committed by growing numbers of households seeking to save money on their energy bills. But neither has reached a tipping point, even after all these years of nudging -- not to mention pushing, pulling, prodding, and guilt-tripping.

Recyclebank CEO Jonathan Hsu thinks that's a solvable problem. The solution: rewards, games, and accessible information.

We’ll get to the rewards and games in a minute. A key step toward providing accessible information came last week, when Recyclebank purchased GreenYour, a website created a few years ago by my colleagues at GreenOrder. (I had a teensy financial stake in GreenYour; suffice to say, I’m keeping my day job.) GreenYour, which provides information about things people can incorporate into their everyday lives, syncs well with Recyclebank’s modus operendi: not just to enlighten the masses, but to entertain them.

And that’s where the games come in.

"Content for content’s sake is interesting, but it’s only effective if people accept it, digest it, and internalize it," Hsu told me last week from his office in Manhattan. "One of the great tools and catalysts for behavioral change is games. It can take many different forms. If you can present information and learning in a fun and accessible way, it is more likely to resonate and drive the requisite downstream behavioral change you want to engender."

Online games are something many companies are starting to wake up to, building on the hockey-stick growth of FarmVille, Happy Aquarium, Words With Friends, and other recent phenomena. It turns out that large numbers of players of such games are women age 25-44, heads of families, which maps nicely to Recyclebank’s membership base, says Hsu. "One of the great interesting phenomenon that’s going on in our world is this concept of gamification -- using game elements to drive everyday behavior," he says. "Our audience likes digesting content in game format, because there’s a sense of achievement and fun as they’re going through the process."

Creating a clear feedback loop about how much waste people are recycling, and especially by comparing one family's recycling rates with their neighbors', is a highly effective way to boost recycling rates as well as environmental awareness, as RecycleBank's chief revenue officer Samantha Skey told the GreenBiz Innovation Forum last October. (Ian Yolles, Recyclebank’s chief sustainability officer, talked about Recyclebank’s gamification strategy at GreenBiz’s State of Green Business Forum in February. You can watch the video here.)

Hsu and his colleagues are serious about games. In June, the company will release a white paper on the topic, based on research conducted with Google. Hsu believes that through games and informational sites like GreenYour, Recyclebank can help make a green lifestyle more accessible to consumers. "There’s almost too much information out there, and the consumer tends to get overwhelmed or confused — ‘Who can we trust?' Some of these things seem implausible. There’s an underlying cynicism about some of the grandiose claims that corporations make about sustainable orientations. From our standpoint, if we can break down the actions that need to be taken and deliver them in a fun, accessible way, they’re more likely to be accepted -- and, as importantly, implemented."

As a proof point, Hsu tells me about the Green Your Home challenge that Recyclebank ran during April 2011. Each week, Recyclebank "unlocked" a different room of a house, revealing new green tips and challenges. In the kitchen, for example, participants could take a tutorial on product labels such as “organic” and “fair trade” and pledge to use one less paper towel a day. Participants’ scores were tabulated based on the number of challenges they completed and the number of friends they convinced to take actions.

"Our time on site tripled -- tripled! -- during the Green Your Home challenge,” says Hsu. "I’ve never quite seen anything like it. The average time on our site went from 6 minutes to 18 minutes." He observes: "One of the key attributes to engendering that kind of mass-market adoption is to have the right tone, tenor, and accessibility. Quite frankly, we need to get everyone involved to really move the needle."

In some ways, we’ve seen this movie, and we know how it ends: consumer-facing green start-ups seeking to move the needle by breaking through beyond the true believers to the much bigger prize of -- well, everybody else. Few of these efforts have stuck around. Take IdealBite, for example, a terrific effort to engage "light green" consumers, created by my friends Jen Boulden and Heather Stephenson. It garnered more than 100,000 daily readers. Disney bought it for a princely sum and the site was never heard from again.

Partly as a result, I’m innately skeptical about such efforts, as well as how much change one can really engender by making green simple and palatable to consumers. But there are two things about Recyclebank that suggests this movie could have a different ending.

One reason is that Recyclebank isn’t just a website: it lives in both the virtual and real worlds. Recyclebank offers its rewards-for-recycling program in 30 U.S. states and in the U.K. In each community it serves, Recyclebank weighs the amount a household recycles and converts the pounds into points, redeemable at more than 3,000 reward partners, from Aveeno to Ziploc. Its on-the-ground presence backed by its online savvy creates a 360-degree approach to engaging consumers that makes it more compelling, more impactful, and harder to ignore.

"One of the self-criticisms I have about my colleagues in the Internet industry," says Hsu, "is that as great as social networks and online games are, many of my colleagues think that’s all there is to life — that you should spend all your time on Facebook or Zynga. As the father of two little girls, I’m a firm believer that we still spend the majority of our time in the real world, interacting with neighbors and friends and community. So, how do we utilize all those online techniques for engagement, but also to enhance one’s real-world life?"

The second reason for hope is the company’s outsized growth ambitions, and its understanding of the critical need to reach scale.

"In today’s world, in order to have a measureable impact, you have to do so at scale," says Hsu, who previously served as CEO of 24/7 Real Media, which provides digital marketing to advertisers and publishers around the world. "Coming from an organization that was $800 million in revenue with operations across 12 different countries and an online network that touched 200 million people, I have a good appreciation of the power to move behaviors on a mass-market basis. That’s why I came on board Recyclebank."

Recyclebank’s membership tripled in past year and doubled since Hsu joined the company eight months ago. By end of 2011, Hsu claims his company will have more than 10 million members.

So far, so good.

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