Is Cash The Key to Motivating Green Business Behavior?

What motivates consumers to make more sustainable choices? A desire to “save the planet?” A drive to improve the health of their community? To preserve their own or their children’s health? Ego? Probably a mix of all of these. And sometimes it’s money.

At the end of 2010, TerraCycle partnered with the Walmart Foundation to do the Trash To Cash Collection contest. It’s simple: New Jersey public schools competed to see which could collect the most trash to upcycled/recycled by TerraCycle. The top 6 schools would receive a total of $125,000 in grants.

Did it work?

Oh yes. Jaw droppingly so. Thanks to the additional grants offered by the Walmart Foundation, participating schools on average doubled the amount of packaging they sent to us, compared to previous months. Will it continue after the contest is done? My sense is it will trail off to a degree, but won’t level out at the numbers previous to the contest. The path to direct benefit has always been a short one with our Brigades: Collect packaging, get paid, buy things that your school, community group, faith organization needs.

The question that comes to mind is, could something like this be replicated in the business or government sectors?

It seems like so much of the systems in place are to penalize them if they don’t meet a certain standard, a certain level of achievement. And that’s how many things are geared: All stick, no carrot. Fear. They say fear, and in the case of businesses and government, monetary penalties and future limitations on how they can conduct operations are the best incentive. Really?

It seems to me that it’s a huge expenditure of people’s time and energy to enforce the negative repercussions of actions, rather then the opposite: Encourage organizations to engage in activities which benefit them, us, the environment, then reward them for having done so.

Carrot Mob, now a global phenomenon, is a small scale, localized version of this, where businesses that commit to a set of sustainability increasing activities/equipment purchases are then “mobbed” by people shopping at their business during a specified day.

What would a massive scale version of this look like? How can positive incentives, monetary or otherwise, be created for non consumer oriented businesses? Who would do, organize such a thing? How else can businesses and governments be incentivized for their planet positive actions?

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

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