Talking with Wendy Gordon about Behavior Change for Sustainability

I sat down with Wendy Gordon recently for the Bard MBA’s Sustainable Business Fridays podcast to discuss methods that can empower people to change their behaviors and habits for the better. Wendy runs PIPs Rewards, which stands for “Positive Impact Points,” a gamified app that encourages people to make changes in their daily lives that positively impact themselves and the world around them.

Here’s a taste of our conversation, as published in GreenBiz:

Amy Campbell Bogie: What is your background, and how did you get to PIPs Rewards?

Wendy Gordon, co-founder of PIPs Rewards.
Wendy Gordon, co-founder of PIPs Rewards.

Wendy Gordon: My first job was at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). I focused primarily on water pollution, hazardous waste and toxic contamination. I cut my teeth on community engagement in response to water and air hazards. Then, in the summer of 1988, Meryl Streep walked into the NRDC offering her help. It was the summer when the ozone hole was discovered over Australia and she had just done a movie there. Together, we started working on Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a community organizing project focused on pesticides and children’s diets.

Mothers & Others was about trying to problem solve in our daily lives. How could we come together as a group and ask a supermarket to provide us with healthier choices? We didn’t stormthe supermarket, but as shoppers there, we could request that it stock children’s applesauce that’s either organic or made locally with fewer pesticides. And the supermarket would respond to the consumer far more quickly than Congress or the regulatory system would work.

Through the years, I tried to figure out ways to help people make decisions that would enhance the quality of their lives, their family’s lives and their communities. In 2012, I met with a friend (Sands) who had just sold an impact investing firm. He’d always been interested in moving corporate behavior, and I’d been working on moving consumers, so we started talking about more effective strategies for impacting behavior.

We did a lot of research and met some really great people who are now part of our tech team. We looked at game mechanics and at rewards as the most powerful drivers of behavior change. We also knew that we were sitting on this great new technology that was able to track behaviors better than ever before. So we came up with a rewards engagement platform. It’s a tech product called Picks for Positive Impact Points — PIPs Rewards. It connects up tracking devices and trackable behaviors, and then it applies behavioral strategies, basically games and rewards, in order to prompt people to make smarter, healthier everyday choices.

Bogie: Can you walk us through the PIPS Rewards user experience?

Gordon: When you register for the PIPs Rewards app in the app store, the first thing you see is a map of your location. The map is loaded up with little points called PIPs, each one representing a check-in location. Imagine that you’re at a playground with your small children and a check-in reward opportunity pops up on your phone. It says: “Check in now to receive a promotion from Olen Organics”. Olen is a female-led business that offers organic baby clothes. You get a bundle for a baby from zero to three months old. When the baby outgrows it, you return that bundle to Olen and it sends you the next bundle. It’s exactly the kind of low-impact company that we want to promote.

We have donation opportunities as well, so you can turn your PIPs into cash for different organizations, so you earn PIPs for making better choices and you can use them in good ways as well.

Bogie: What sustainability impact do you hope to have?

Gordon: It’s broad. We think of the environment, mind and body and community behaviors. However, we can’t reward you if you promise to turn out the lights or walk to work that day. The behavior has to be trackable. For example, we’ve done focus groups to see if college students are interested in being rewarded for riding the bus to school as opposed to driving their cars, or if they want to be rewarded for volunteering.

One particular group of students could volunteer to be certified to do energy and water audits in low-income housing, and they thought that would be something that they’d like to earn points for. They also felt there were certain shopping choices they made, or going to a fitness class, that could be rewardable. We would also love to encourage turning carpooling into a game.

I think employers might value the program because it reduces lost productivity due to employees sitting in traffic jams. Cities may also be interested because we could reward drivers who park outside of the most congested part of town, or use their bikes or bike-sharing programs.

Bogie: How did you handle some of the start-up challenges?

Gordon: Putting yourself in a high learning curve situation is key. It’s not easy to start a business, and even though I’m aware of being a 59-year-old white woman in the tech world with a startup, on the other hand there’s a certain wisdom that comes with being an older person.

I had a sense that I could take my time and do this right. A younger person may feel more urgency, and I would probably advise them to take it slow and really do the research beforehand. It’s important to meet as many people as you can and to be willing to massage the idea, to see how it works in different places and with different people. Because if you want it to be a marketable product with lots of users, and you want to change the world, it has to be something that people want.

Bogie: Do you have any words of advice for future sustainability leaders:

Gordon: Now more than ever, industry must lead. We need more businesses to be outspoken about their commitment to a climate-changing world, that they are going to do their part to drive down their footprint in every aspect of their work.

I’m on the board of the Rainforest Alliance. It implements the Forest Stewardship Council certification program as well as its own certification for agricultural products from the rainforest — coffee, cocoa, bananas and other products. Rainforest Alliance now certifies hundreds and hundreds of businesses throughout the supply chain. It has certified millions of hectares of managed cropland and forest. It is not a consumer-driven campaign as much as industry recognizing the potential impacts of climate change.

Unilever is a more obvious example. It produces and sells a lot of tea, which could be affected significantly by climate-related changes to the water supply. Unilever sees what’s coming and it’s concerned. It stepped up and went through a certification process to learn how to help tea farmers be more efficient with their resources and create a product that’s mindful of the future and more sustainable.

What has been led by responsible businesses is amazing. Now is the time.