Wendy Gordon Wants to Incentivize You to Make More Sustainable Choices

By Amy Campbell Bogie and Katie Ellman

Wendy Gordon never set out to become a tech entrepreneur. But after several decades working with environmental organizations, she saw an opportunity. Wendy and her co-founder David Sand thought to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a program where you could get reward points not just for spending money, but for spending money wisely and for making other smart choices—like walking or biking to work, opting for renewable energy, or choosing clothes based on where and how they were made?”

And so they embarked on a journey to create PIPs Rewards. PIPs leverages the power of points, smart tools and games to record and reward daily life choices that deliver personal and planetary benefit. Amy Campbell Bogie of the Bard MBA in Sustainability sat down with Wendy last month to find out more about Wendy’s sustainability vision for PIPs.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s December 16th Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean.

BARD MBA: WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW DID YOU GET TO PIPS REWARDS?

My first job was at the Natural Resources Defense Council. I focused primarily on water pollution, hazardous waste, and toxic contamination. I cut my teeth on community engagement in response to hazards in our water, our air, coming into our houses. Then, in the summer of ‘88, Meryl Streep walked into the NRDC. She had just done a movie in Australia, and it was the summer when the ozone hole was discovered over Australia. She came to the NRDC offering her help. We got together and started working on something called Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet. It was a community organizing project whose original focus was 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 storm the supermarket, but as shoppers there, we would go and say “My kid loves applesauce and eats just bucket loads of it—could you please offer a choice 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.

All through these years, I was trying to figure out ways to help people make decisions that would enhance the quality of their lives, and their family’s lives, and their communities. So then fast forward, it’s now 2012, and I’m meeting a friend for lunch who had just sold an impact investing firm. He’d always been interested in how to move corporate behavior, and I’d been working on how to move consumers, and 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 gains 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 gains and rewards, in order to prompt people to make smarter, healthier everyday choices.

BARD MBA: CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH THE USER EXPERIENCE FOR SOMEONE NEW TO THE PIPS REWARDS PLATFORM?

There’s a PIPs Rewards app in the App Store. When you register, the first thing you see is a map of right where you are. And the map is loaded up with all these PIPs, these little points, and each one represents a check-in location. So image 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 new women-led business that offers organic baby clothes—you get a bundle for your zero-to-three month old, and then you return that bundle to them and they send you the next bundle. It’s a low-impact company, exactly the kind of company that we’re trying to promote.

We have donation opportunities as well, so you can turn your PIPs into cash for different organizations. The platform is all about 360 degrees of good. You earn PIPs for making better choices and then you use them in good ways as well.

WHAT KIND OF SUSTAINABILITY IMPACT IS PIPS REWARDS HOPING TO HAVE?

We’re actually pretty broad. As long as the behavior is trackable, we hope to be able to move it forward. It’s fun, looking at the sorts of behaviors that different groups or institutions feel are going to help improve the quality of life, or drive down costs, in their local areas. We think of the environment, we look at mind and body, and we look at community behaviors. However, we can’t reward you if you promise to turn out the lights, or if you promise you’re going to walk to work that day. There has to be something to track your behavior.

For example, we’ve done some focus groups with college students to see if they’re 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 had a volunteer opportunity 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 it because of 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.

HOW DID YOU HANDLE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES OF STARTING UP A PLATFORM LIKE THIS?

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 little bit more of a sense of, “I’m going to 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.

DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR FUTURE SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS?

We need business, now more than ever, to step up and say, “We’re not going backwards, even if they unravel all the improvements Obama made.” Industry must lead. And it can lead, and it often is the leader. We need more businesses to be outspoken about their commitment to a climate-changing world, and 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, a fascinating organization. It implements the Forest Stewardship Council certification program as well as the Rainforest Alliance certification for agricultural products from the rainforest—coffee, cocoa, a wide variety of bananas, and other products. And industry stepped up. It was not a consumer-driven campaign as much as industry recognizing the potential impacts of climate change. Unilever is one of the more obvious cases—it produces and sells a lot of tea, which could be affected significantly if there’re climate-related changes to the water supply. Unliver sees what’s coming and it’s concerned. So it stepped up and said, “We want to go through a certification process, to learn how to help those farmers be more efficient with their resources and create a product that’s mindful of the future and more sustainable.” Rainforest Alliance now certifies hundreds and hundreds of businesses throughout the supply chain. It has certified millions of hectares of managed cropland and forest, and it’s amazing what has gone on, all led by responsible businesses. Now is the time.

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