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Community currency systems (Time Banks/LETS) can be harnessed to reward and encourage green behaviour among their members, and beyond.



Members of a community currency system use a local currency in exchange for goods and services from other members, in the process establishing a social network which supports members in times of need (Panther, 2012).

For instance, Jenny - who is retired - earns two units of local currency for taking Tom's dog out while he is at work, she spends them on getting some help with her garden from Ben, who is unemployed.  Ben then uses them in exchange for an old sofa that Tom no longer wants. 

All units spent and earned are recorded on a computer, and the members meet on a regular basis to share food together, pass on things they no longer need to other members, and talk about what they have to offer the community, and what their needs are.  Friendships are built between people from all walks of life, and community is built, often where there was little social capital before.  

There are hundreds of these systems already in existence, but their power to motivate and encourage greener behaviour both within the group itself, and in the community at large, has not yet been harnessed.  

The aim of this proposal is to develop best practice in the use of local currency to reward and motivate small shifts towards a more sustainable lifestyle, starting within a single local currency system (based here in Durham, UK), but then going on to develop a pack which can be adapted for use in other local currency systems worldwide.  


What actions do you propose?

The actions we propose can be divided into three categories, as follows:

1.  Sharing knowledge and mainstreaming 'green' norms

Community currency system members will be encouraged to share examples of their existing more sustainable behaviours with others at our monthly meetings, in return for community currency from the system account.  The emphasis will be on what people are doing already, rather than upon making individuals feel guilty about what they are not yet doing.

For instance, one member might agree to talk about how they use their bathwater to water their plants.  Another might explain how they make their own reusable shopping bags.  A third may offer to show other members the solar panels they have had installed.  By simply giving these people the chance to tell others what they are doing, the more sustainable forms of behaviour will begin to seem more mainstream, encouraging wider adoption of green norms. 

In addition, outside agencies will be invited in to share their knowledge about particular issues, e.g.  different methods of composting, how to save electricity in the home. 

These information-sharing events will also be publicised locally, so that non-members can also attend.

2.  Coaching/modelling of sustainable behaviours 

As a follow-on from the sharing of knowledge above, members will offer coaching to other members in particular green behaviours in exchange for local currency.  For instance, a member giving a talk about the joys of making your own bread, may afterwards invite anyone interested to attend a workshop where they will make bread.  The attending members pay for the workshop in local currency, the member giving the workshop earns the local currency.  A member who has talked about solar energy may offer a guided tour of his or her own solar panel system, again in exchange for local currency.  Someone who shops for food in a particularly sustainable way may offer to take a group of members with them the next time they go shopping, in exchange for local currency.

3.  Rewarding green behaviour 

Having attended a talk, and then some kind of workshop or tour, some members will feel ready to take on the challenge of adopting the behaviour in question, at least for a period of time.  

The beauty of harnessing a pre-existing community currency system is that members adopting a certain behaviour can be rewarded with local currency for doing so, which members can then spend on other goods and services already available within the system.  

The exact mechanism for rewarding certain types of behaviour with local currency would vary with the type of behaviour being promulgated.  Central to this, however, would be that at every monthly meeting, members would be encouraged to take on a green challenge of their choice.  These challenges would be set by other members, and would vary in scale, from something tiny and very doable, such as remembering to use a mug to rinse one's teeth (rather than leaving the tap running!) every night till the next meeting, to larger promises: deciding to walk to work one day a week, or to eat vegetarian food at least 3 times a week.

At the next meeting, members would be encouraged to talk openly about how they had coped with the challenge they had chosen, what they had found hard about it, and whether they intended to continue in future.

Members who had managed to complete their challenge would be rewarded with a token amount of currency from the community pool account. Members who had not managed to complete the challenge would be encouraged to donate some currency to this pool instead.  

All of this could be carried out in a light hearted way, as community currency is not seen as a form of real money, more as a facilitator of the continuation of the community currency system itself.  However, members would be keen to increase their social standing in the group, while greening their lifestyle in a relatively painless way, and would be slightly embarrassed to turn up at the next meeting having not even attempted to fulfill the challenge they themselves had chosen.  It is this belonging to a group and one's behaviour being visible to this group, rather than the currency itself, which would do most to encourage group members to shift their behaviour towards being more sustainable.

The process above would be based on the community pool account as a source of the currency used to reward members.  This pool is supplied with currency by members who have accumulated more currency than they are able to spend, and members who leave the area, leaving their currency to the system.

It is likely, however, that some members would take it upon themselves to use their own currency to reward fellow members for adopting behaviours close to their own hearts.  For instance, a vegetarian or vegan member might be keen to tempt other members to try out their lifestyle, if only for a day a week, for a month.  A keen cyclist might want to use his or her hard-earned hours to encourage fellow members to leave the car at home, at least one day a week for a month, and so on.

Members could even earn community currency for encouraging non-members to change their behaviour in subtle but important ways.  Members could get together to create their own reusable shopping bags, and then hand these out outside local supermarkets, in return for credits from the community pool account.  They could offer to take on an elderly neighbour's garden to grow vegetables in, passing on some of the vegetables to the neighbour, and being rewarded in both vegetables and local community currency themselves.  One member could offer space for the storage of furniture donated by the local community, which other members could then upcycle and 'sell' to other members in exchange for community currency.  The opportunities are endless!

4.  The facilitation of existing forms of sustainable behaviour among community currency system members

Some of the greener behaviours already practised among community currency system members could be made much more widespread within the group by employing a member to facilitate such behaviours, on a part time basis.  

For instance, community currency system members already give each other lifts to meetings in exchange for system currency, plus the Sterling cost of the petrol.  A facilitator could make it easier for group members to share weekly lifts to the supermarket, and could also be in charge of putting together group orders to food wholesalers.

Community currency system members already keep stuff out of landfill, by passing it on to fellow members.  Sometimes, however, they may have something they need to get rid of quickly, which no one in the group currently needs.  A paid facilitator could manage a repository of unwanted items, likely to be needed by other members at a future date.  Items of furniture could be stored, ready for the next upcycling workshop.  An unwanted freezer could be stored, ready for the next new member requiring one.  

5.  Economies of scale

Some tools might be bought by the group as a whole (using Sterling from the annual membership fee, currently £1-£5 per member, according to a person's income), and hired out to members as needed, e.g. a shredder, an apple press, in exchange for system currency.  In this way, the purchasing power of the group as a whole could be harnessed towards increasing the green options open to individuals.  

5.  Spreading behaviour into wider community

I know this proposal is likely to be criticised for only trying to change the behaviour of a small group of people, but work by Christakis and Fowler (2007) illustrates how behaviour promulgates through a social network, with friends of friends being more likely to be similarly obese.  In the same way, if community currency system members begin to be more aware of the impact of their lifestyle choices on the environment, and feel motivated to make even small changes towards living more sustainably, it is likely to influence the behaviour and norms of their friends and relatives also.

In addition, the community currency system will hold occasional public events at which local people will be able to enjoy themselves while finding out more the community currency system as well as about how to live in a more sustainable way.  It will seek media coverage for its green successes, and publish a blog in which members and non-members alike can share, in a humorous way, what changes they have been able to make while greening their lives, and what changes they have found more difficult.

Who will take these actions?

Our local community currency system, Durham Exchange, has now been operating for 15 years, so far without the need for any funding.  We will use the money to employ one of our members on a part time basis for two years, to work together with our members to find the best ways of encouraging more sustainable ways of living within the context of a community currency system.  This research will then be transformed into a pack which other community currency systems can adapt to their own particular context.

Where will these actions be taken?

Initially, the actions would take place in a single community system in the UK.  However, once the pack was developed the resources would be made available to community currency systems worldwide.  As each community currency system is different, we would aim to set up an internet  discussion forum where different systems aiming to tackle behaviour change using community currencies could share their experiences.  Ideas would then be fed back into the pack so that it improved year upon year. 

How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

Community currency systems have the remarkable ability to create little villages in the midst of the urban sprawl, and are especially important where unemployment or over employment have diminished traditional forms of community.  Members of a community currency system care about what other members think of them, and are often already interested in green issues.  If a reward based system cannot work to encourage the adoption of greener behaviours in this context, where will it work? 

Even small changes are important, when made by large numbers of people.  There are hundreds of community currency systems in the UK, many more worldwide.  If the community currency movement took on the challenge of trying to green their members' behaviours, this in itself would be a step towards reducing our emissions.  

If using local currencies proves to be a successful way of greening behaviour, this would encourage expansion of these systems to much wider membership. 

What are other key benefits?

As well as facilitating changes in behaviour, community currency systems build community where there was none, helping integrate diverse communities with lots of incomers, and bringing together groups of people who might otherwise never interact.  They value our common humanity, rather than what differentiates us.  Everyone has something to offer, and moments of need, when being part of community matters.  People drawn to community currency system membership often have green leanings, but the use of the existing currency system to encourage a shift towards greener lifestyles has not been fully explored until now.  I feel it is essential that the community currency movement makes concrete steps towards shifting members' behaviour towards greater sustainability, and that this attempt will both help revitalize the movement itself, and go some way towards saving our planet in the process. 

What are the proposal’s costs?

Minimal costs involved.  Our own system has been running for 15 years with no funding apart from our annual membership fee of £1- £5 (according to individual income).  However, in order to have the time and energy to introduce incentives for green behaviour into the system, we would need to be able to pay someone from the group to work on the project for half a day a week, for a two year period.  That is what we would use the prize money for.

Time line

We would begin by assessing current levels of current green behaviour with a questionnaire, which would be administered again after one year, and again at the end of the two year period (to see if behaviour changes were permanent).

We would then initiate various changes in the way our system is run, establishing the monthly green challenges, identifying particular environmental concerns members want to work on, and particular individuals within the group willing to take on particular aspects of the project.  

After the two year period in which different ways of using community currency to reward changes in behaviour in our own system, we would start to develop a pack to send out to other community currency systems.  An online forum would be set up so that people using community currency to green lifestyles could communicate easily with each other.  Feedback from this forum would be used to improve the pack, prior to it being sent out even more widely.

The plan would be that in ten years time, most community currency systems were using some of our techniques to encourage green behaviour by members, and governments had begun to support community currency systems, recognising their role in supporting shifts towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Related proposals

Have not yet had time to look at other proposals, unfortunately.  Will do so tomorrow.


Christakis, Nicholas  and Fowler, James, The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years, N Engl J Med 2007; 357:370-379.

Panther, Julia, 'It ain’t what you do (It’s the way that you do it)': Reciprocity, co-operation and spheres of exchange in two community currency systems in the North of England. 2012.  Doctoral thesis, Durham University.