One-Click Sustainability: How Convenience is Taking a Maturing Market to the Mainstream

mouseCan you imagine waiting a day for a text message? Spending half an hour to fill out an online payment form?

Until recently, that’s what we asked of would-be green consumers. Many of the most celebrated green technologies still struggle to deliver an ideal experience for consumers. Even as e-waste grows at nearly three times the rate of traditional waste, recycling old cell phones can be quite an ordeal, requiring extensive online sleuthing, trips to the post office and waiting weeks for your reward. It’s no surprise that more than half of consumers cited inconvenience as a factor in not recycling their old cell phones, and that the global mobile industry has achieved a mobile recycling rate of just 1 percent.

Likewise, consumers considering going solar have had to deal with a slew of separate hassles, including finding an installer, managing permitting and construction, and coming up with tens of thousands of dollars in capital to purchase a system. Finally, potential electric car drivers faced similar ease-of-adoption problems too, including concerns about range anxiety, high prices and available charging support.

Test-driving new products and services is only worth the hassle for hardened early adopters. Yet as technology improves and prices continue to fall, sustainable businesses are poised to expand to the mainstream. Sustainable businesses have reached an inflection point: to drive broad market adoption, it is time for companies to move beyond validating technology to a renewed focus on implementing business models that maximize ease of use and adoption.

In the landmark book, NUDGE, legal guru Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler coined a term to explain how the presentation of options affects the decisions we make: choice architecture. According to their research, presenting the choice in a way that invites a good decision is just as important as the decision itself.

In a popular example from NUDGE, the New York Department of Health was tasked with helping students make healthier choices for school lunches. Experts were brought in to solve the problem, eventually settling on a low-cost fix: convenience. Simply by moving fruit to a prominent location by the register, fruit sales at one school jumped more than 50 percent in two weeks; by changing the location of salads at another, salad sales jumped more than 200 percent. Choice architecture made the difference.

Sustainable businesses provide many societal benefits: they help to address climate change, create green and lasting jobs, reduce costs, improve energy security and accelerate the economies of tomorrow. But in order to help consumers make the right choice for themselves, we need to make it easy and convenient for them.

Let’s revisit e-waste and wireless device recycling. Wireless consumers update or upgrade their wireless device every 12 – 18 months. The perceived lifecycle of wireless devices has been significantly compressed while the majority of these devices are still functionally viable. The reality is that a one-year-old phone still delivers unparalleled access to information and technology to those that may not otherwise have it. In order to make this access to information and technology possible, consumers need to understand the value of trading in retired phones and devices. Compass Intelligence research found that 58 percent of customers are most interested in receiving an instant credit, and 68 percent of those want to trade-in their wireless device at a carrier store.

New business models from companies like eRecyclingCorps are starting to satisfy that craving for convenience, offering instant credit for old phones directly in the store that can be applied to the purchase of a new phone. The model nudged more than 1.1 million consumers in May 2013 alone to trade-in their old phones, or more than one trade-in every second of the retail day—all while eliminating e-waste. Moreover, buyback programs are turning into big business; a recent report from Bamboo Mobile states that trade-in programs generated about $900 million in revenue in 2012 alone.

This emphasis on convenience is starting to take root in many more sustainable businesses with impressive results. Solar installers now manage permitting and interconnection to make installation painless for homeowners, and solar leases help consumers install solar panels for little or no money down, helping to drive a 76 percent spike in the U.S. solar market in 2012. Thanks to innovative partnerships with the likes of REC Solar and SunRun, many consumers can now go solar just by swinging by their local Costco. And electric car drivers can now not only get behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf for just $199/month, but also will be able to charge up hassle-free at any EV charger from ECOtality and ChargePoint thanks to an innovative interoperability initiative.

These initial results are impressive, and reflect the extraordinary power of choice architecture. Sustainable companies must continue to make going green the easy option—and take their solutions to the mainstream.

Kelly Carnago is the Chief Carrier Operations Officer for eRecyclingCorps, a mobile device trade-in platform.

[image credit: pure9: Flickr cc]

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