Environmental Education Goes Social with Practically Green
By Sierra Club Green Home
In 2006, Susan Hunt Stevens embarked on a healthy green lifestyle makeover but couldn’t find the resources she needed. After lots of digging, reading, and blogging—and taking on a graduate program in Sustainable Design—she created Practically Green to help people who want to live healthy, sustainable lives…but aren’t sure where to start. Sierra Club Green Home interviewed Susan to learn more about how Practically Green brings environmental education to the interactive social space—and beyond.
Where did YOU start? What resources did you pull together, and how did you go about developing this solution for “greening people”?
I began as a mother with an almost two-year-old diagnosed with serious food and environmental allergies. I started reading labels and researching ingredients I didn’t know, and was frankly shocked at what I was finding. Then I started reading anything I could, including books and magazines. I found that blogs were the most helpful, which gave me the idea to start blogging about the changes we were making in our own family.
About half way through a major “green renovation” of a historic home, I enrolled in a graduate program in Sustainable Design. In my third course, we were exposed to the LEED system and I kept thinking, “Why isn’t there a LEED for daily living?” That was the original vision for Practically Green. However, given my background in digital technology, I also knew it would never work if it didn’t leverage great content, real science, and the power of social and game mechanics to drive real-life behavior change.
Your approach utilizes gamification, social media, and interactive technology as a vehicle for sharing sustainability knowledge. Can you explain this approach?
We use game mechanics to create a shared framework for people to share, compare, compete and collaborate because unlike weight loss or fitness, there is no shared scale or national guidelines for sustainability. The game framework provides that scale and then encourages ongoing participation and motivation.
The social mechanics are equally powerful because they address the issue of visibility. Most sustainable choices are invisible. My colleagues and friends likely have no idea if I’ve turned down my power settings on my computer, switched to an LED light, or signed up for eBills or green power. By bringing visibility to who in your social network has done these things, it can leverage the power of social norms to drive change. If I see that 85% of my colleagues have switched to eBilling, I’m likely to switch too.
How is it unique to other forms of “environmental education”?
It’s similar to the changes occurring in all education, not just environmental. It’s moving it online and going from one-way transmission of information to an interactive, engaging, social experience that is more effective. What we also believe we’ve done well is taking what can oftentimes be hard (and even guilt-inducing) information and making it more accessible and solution-oriented.
For many of us, sustainability isn’t something that we grew up learning about in school. So there is a huge population that really would like to do something, but they are busy, have other priorities, and no idea where to start or the time to figure it out. We use the power of discovery and social recognition to inspire that first step. When people see both positive reinforcement from peers and the real time impact they are making, they are more likely to take another steps—and another.
You work with companies all over the world to engage and educate their employees, members, and customers. Can you disclose the names of any of your clients?
We have more than 17 global clients, including Fortune 500 companies, as well as sustainability leaders like Seventh Generation. Our clients range from companies that want to start a sustainability program, to others that want to enhance an existing program.
Please share one of your greatest success stories.
I think one of our biggest successes to date has been the growth of our employee engagement platform. Having CSOs and business executives tell us that they love what we are doing and want to make it available to their employees or customers wasn’t something I expected at the outset. But companies are really the pioneers in sustainability and it’s been amazing to see how our solution is helping them achieve their sustainability goals.
How does your success directly relate to your mission to make healthy green living the conventional way of life?
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be a big time tree-hugger, I would have laughed out loud. What I realized after making many of these changes personally is that sustainable, healthy living is just smarter living for the 21st century. It saves money, but I also honestly believe many of these choices can make people and families happier and healthier. Companies have figured this out too.
However, I truly understand that it is really hard for people to change. It’s so NOT easy being green when you first get started. The challenges can feel daunting because it touches everything: your food, your transportation, your home, and anything you purchase. If we can provide a solution that makes these choices simpler, faster, and way more fun—and people get access and encouragement to participate at work—I think that will reach more people more quickly.
How does the social element come into play with colleagues at a workplace?
Social is a huge part of the success of Practically Green. The people you work with often become influencers in your life, mostly because you spend so much time together. So when someone finds a new coffee shop around the corner that gives a ten-cent discount for brining in a reusable mug and they share that information as part of an action they take, it is adding to your overall arsenal of sustainability knowledge.
For businesses, what are the advantages of Practically Green compared to an in-person seminar or workshop?
The biggest advantage is that you can participate in Practically Green 24×7, 365 days a year, from any digital device. As a result, every employee can participate at a time and place that works for him or her, from any office location you have. We also cover a wide variety of topics, and employees can choose what they are most interested in versus having one topic that may or may not excite people. It is customized to the goals of the company, as well as the individual, and allows both the company and employee to see the real-time metrics of the actions that they are taking. It finally gives context to the age-old sustainability question: “Does it even matter if I do this?” Because individuals and companies can see that yes, it does actually make a difference if you carpool to work one day a week, or shut down your computer each night before leaving the office.
For individuals who decide to join (independent of a businesses or invitation from a friend), what advice can you give for making the most of Practically Green?
We have a saying that Practically Green without friends is NO fun. Get your friends to join, set goals, and take some actions. Remember: you don’t have to do everything all at once. We also have a great product directory that is something that we vet and curate on an ongoing basis. It’s a way to help you navigate the world of green products, which can oftentimes be confusing.
How many people now work at Practically Green full-time?
We have 16 full time and 3 part time employees. It’s amazing for me to see our company, which literally started at my kitchen table, move into a beautiful new office space in Boston and quadruple in size!
Can you disclose your revenue numbers?
I can say that last year was our most successful year to date. We continue to see an influx of businesses looking to engage employees in a real and measurable way, and that is what they are able to achieve with our program.
Since starting Practically Green, how has your experience influenced/inspired/changed your dreams about sustainable living?
For me, it’s a journey that has no defined end. I have been creating goals for myself for over five years now and still have so much to do! The innovations in this space are truly remarkable, and I think will give all of us plenty to do for years to come. That said, I think I respect even more the need for people, companies and governments to work together to make it easier for people.
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© 2013 SCGH, LLC.