Buy a Patagonia Backpack, Rack Up Points, and Donate. Easy, Right?

A note to our readers: In The Story of Change, we spelled out our operating theory of change: that we have more power to make change as citizens than as shoppers. Yet, in our large and diverse sustainability movement, there’s an ongoing conversation about the role conscious consumption can play in helping the planet. Here, we report on a new idea for how to encourage behavior change. We hope you’ll let us know in the comments what role you think changing consumer habits has in our lower consumption, zero waste future?

We all have friends addicted to Candy Crush or Words with Friends. If not, perhaps you have a Fitbit, Jawbone or Apple Watch that tracks your steps, heart rate and how far you run.

Then you know how it sneaks up on you – the urge to see how far you’ve gone, to rack up points in Candy Crush and to put down that next word in Words with Friends. So you take the stairs instead of the elevator, just to increase that magic number. It’s addicting.

What if you were awarded points for buying sustainable products or could use points to donate to a cause? Would you sign up? Might it change your behavior? Do we need a sweetener like that? Or should we just do the right thing because it’s the right thing?

When college friends Wendy Gordon and David Sand got together decades after graduation, they were both looking for a new challenge. Gordon had worked with NRDC, started the nonprofit Mothers and Others with Meryl Streep and launched The Green Guide (later acquired by National Geographic), while Sand had put in time at CERES and was now an impact investor.

Early on, Gordon was inspired by John Naisbitt who wrote that “information in the hands of many” is a powerful force for change. But over the years, Gordon found information alone wasn’t enough. Despite the best of efforts to inform the public, a shift toward lifestyle choices benefitting health and the environment wasn’t happening fast enough. “Even among my most ardent environmentalist friends, there could be a disconnect between knowing what to do and doing it.”

So the two friends began searching for other behavior drivers. Was it rewards? Was it games? And what about the fact that with smart tech, it was now possible to track behaviors like driving, home energy use, walking, even sleeping?

The time was indeed right. It was 2013. Gordon and Sand met Yaniv Eyny and Evan Sable, techies with a background in behavioral science and flexible software design. Together they learned all they could about wearable devices, tracking apps and reward programs. A year and a half later, they launched a virtual currency for good called PIPs (Positive Impact Points).

And just last month, they launched the PIPs Rewards mobile app (check it out here) to promote beneficial brands and behaviors. Combining the best of smart tech plus behavioral hacks (surprise and delight, rewards, storytelling) the app steers people toward and prompts them to make better, healthier, more responsible everyday choices.

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“It works like Foursquare plus Groupon but for good,” Gordon explains. A user can check in at a neighborhood playground to earn PIPs and a coupon to OlenOrganic (organic baby clothing company), or check in at a park for more PIPs and a coupon to Worksman Cycles (a Queens, NY-based bike maker, the oldest in the country).

At a LEED certified office building, a user can check in to earn PIPs and a coupon for Climate Store, (which offers footprint-reducing products). Or when near a school, a user might learn about Better World Books, (which sells used books and textbooks, and using the proceeds, supports literacy programs around the world).

“The app works equally well as a cause-marketing platform,” Gordon says. Instead of being prompted with a coupon, users would be presented with a donation opportunity that a partnering business sponsors.

App users also can access the PIPs website which houses a consciously curated marketplace with a multitude of ways to earn, redeem or donate their PIPs. Users earn PIPs buying items offered by vendors like ThredUp (used clothing), Seventh Generation, Fitbit and Patagonia; through services and apps like Zipcar, Ethical Electric (renewable energy), Sungevity (solar energy), and Oroeco (carbon offsets), through items like Klean Kanteen water bottles or by recycling their electronics at Gazelle.

Once you’ve earned PIPs, you can use them to purchase more sustainable items from retailers like REI and Whole Foods or to hire a personal trainer. There are also many opportunities to make donations to organizations like Girl Rising, Wild Aid, 350.org and NRDC. You can even micro-invest your PIPs in community solar projects.

Over the next few months, Gordon and the PIPs team will be adding more features to the app, including group games that motivate positive behaviors. Last fall, they tested an employee fitness challenge that had great results – daily physical activity improved by 10% among all participants, 33% among the least active quartile.

“We were able to get employees’ minds off the hard work of habit change and into a game that values improved daily physical activity.”

Gordon says, “To really change habits and shift behavior, it’s essential to look at the problem in new ways, and try new strategies to solve it. Our app is nudging users to use the city bike share program, to enroll in a yoga class, to repair their cellphone, or to choose a certified pre-owned phone if it needs replacing.”

Gordon acknowledges that these all involve the use of rather conventional discount coupons, but “they are offered up in a whole new context – at ‘rewardable’, and often delightfully surprising, moments in your daily life.”

Gordon is inspired by exploring new ways to reduce the inertia of deeply ingrained habits and truly shift behaviors. “It’s an exhilarating project. I studied Geology in college.  People change a whole lot more quickly than rocks.”

Though in a globally warming world, human behavior change is going to have to kick into a higher gear. Will an app like PIPs mobile help enlighten and engage consumers fast enough to make a difference? Would you be moved by a rewards system like PIPs?

If you’re curious, check it out – download the new app and look around. The PIPs team is eager for feedback, to learn what works for you, and what doesn’t. Let them know what you think—and be sure to let us know, in the comments below.

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