Buy Local Meets Conscientious Consumerism: A Community Sustainability App From MilkCrate

Morgan Berman Is Turning Doing Good Into a Game

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Morgan Berman wanted to do more than live sustainably — she wanted to make it easier for everyone to live sustainably by supporting local sustainable businesses and green lifestyle services. So in August 2014, she established MilkCrate: a company dedicated to simplifying sustainability for individuals inside of large communities. The company’s new product, MilkCrate for Communities, makes it possible for users to easily find a host of environmentally and socially conscientious events, organizations and businesses — everything from coffee shops to dentists — in local communities.

“I wanted to make an app that makes it easier for people to live sustainably,” says Berman. “I knew other people had tried and failed [to develop similar technology], and I wanted to do it better.”

Philadelphia-based MilkCrate’s platform includes a user-facing app, My MilkCrate, which is free to download for Android and iOS, as well as an administrative platform through which CSR and sustainability directors can manage and monitor their employees’ impact metrics. Users earn points in the app through engaging with local sustainable businesses, actions and events, including volunteer opportunities. The MilkCrate for Communities platform is for schools, organizations and companies who want to engage and track the impact their people are having in their communities and on the environment.

The Path to Conscientious Consumerism

Berman was raised to value sustainability. Her mother was a farm-to-table chef in Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s. “I literally grew up between a giant community garden and an art school,” says Berman. “At home we were eating locally. My mother was a big dumpster-diver and thrift-shopper. I got to see the values of living simply and reducing your footprint.”

Berman majored in women’s studies and anthropology at the College of William and Mary. She worked in reproductive health and at women’s nonprofit groups after she graduated, but the pull of her primary passion for design led her to change course. She began work on a master’s of science in sustainable design at Philadelphia University.

“I was feeling a bit stuck in my ability to make the kind of widespread change I was hoping to have — to make my city a better place,” says Berman. Her idea for MilkCrate grew out of her graduate-school thesis. The name derives from “the ubiquitous practice of thrifty urban dwellers attaching milk crates to the back of their bikes,” she says.

Berman started the company in September 2013 and launched the first version of the sustainability app in August 2014. She got a big boost almost immediately when Forbes named MilkCrate one of five finalists for the business magazine’s “30 Under 30 Pressure Cooker” competition. She didn’t win the $400,000 prize, but the recognition “helped catapult us to a stage that I never would have imagined as someone who had never built anything like this before,” she says.

MilkCrate has collected sustainable lifestyle data from all over the country, growing to new areas as corporate clients reach out wanting to engage their employees in daily acts of doing good. The company partners with groups such as B Lab, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia and Boston, and Certifiably Green Denver that certify businesses on the basis of environmental and social performance, accountability and transparency standards. Businesses also can get listed by being vetted through the Quick Impact Assessment — a short version of the B Impact Assessment administered by B Lab to certify B Corps — on MilkCrate’s website.

A ‘Fitbit for Doing Good’

After almost two years of offering the app for free (without the gamified point system and tracking platform) Berman decided to take the company in a new direction. “We basically combined all the feedback we’d been getting from users who were telling us, ‘You show us these lists of events and businesses, but we want to be guided,’” she says. “Sustainability is this big, confusing thing. They wanted us to guide them, and they wanted to feel rewarded for the progress they were making.”

The solution was MilkCrate for Communities, which Berman calls “a FitBit for doing good.” Companies, schools and nonprofits can purchase MilkCrate for Communities and sign up their employees or students or “any group of people who are interested in tracking and growing their social and environmental impact.”

Users log in and earn points for various activities: checking in to a local sustainable business, signing up for a bike-share program, or putting in volunteer hours, for example. Rewards depend on the users’ company or school, but can be anything from an extra day off to gift certificates or tickets to events.

Berman says the platform appeals to savvy companies looking to attract workers, especially millennials who care about the values of their employers. “When you provide a community platform like MilkCrate for Communities to your workforce, you’re saying you want to develop these values and cultivate a culture of impact.”

Berman zeroed in on colleges for a similar reason. She says, according to studies in the Princeton Review and others, “The average student is significantly more likely to apply to a university with a strong sustainability program. It’s very much in the school’s interest to engage students on this issue.”

With that thought in mind, Berman contacted the president of her graduate school alma mater, Philadelphia University. “He [President Stephen Spinelli Jr.] said, ‘I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do this.’”

MilkCrate launched at Philadelphia University last month, and the community has already reached over 100 percent of its user-engagement goal. The students have earned a combined 756 points for actions such as biking to school, drinking fair trade coffee, and signing up for CSAs.

Tim Butler, associate dean of students at Philadelphia University, says, “Sustainability obviously is a huge topic in higher education.. We want to do what we can on campus to support that for our students.”

The program adds to other campus initiatives, such as its tray-free dining hall, host of recycling programs, and local produce and campus gardens. “A lot of students don’t necessarily know about the resources,” Butler says. “MilkCrate provides that and help students make better decisions.”

MilkCrate is growing across the country, and with the upcoming addition of all registered B Corps in the U.S., users at companies and universities will be earning points for supporting their neighborhood B Corps as well as making many other important sustainable choices.

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