Business TEDTalks

10 alternative currencies, from Bitcoin to BerkShares to sweat to laundry detergent

Paul Kemp-Robertson talks about how non-government currencies are gaining consumer trust at TEDGlobal 2012. Photo: Bret Hartman

Paul Kemp-Robertson talks about how non-government currencies are gaining consumer trust at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: Bret Hartman

“Is there a reason for governments to be in charge of money?” asks Paul Kemp-Robertson in today’s talk. Judging by the new raft of alternative currencies—from digital coins to point systems that reward customers of a certain brand—the answer might someday be “no.” Again.

Paul Kemp-Robertson: Bitcoin. Sweat. Tide. Meet the future of branded currency. Paul Kemp-Robertson: Bitcoin. Sweat. Tide. Meet the future of branded currency. As Kemp-Robertson suggests, many people seem to trust brands more than governments these days. Since currency is, in a sense, an expression of the brand value of a government, why shouldn’t commercial brands also make currency?

Kemp-Robertson reminds us that, once, they did. As an example, before the US Civil War, 1,600 different corporations, mainly private banks, issued paper banknotes. The government only issued coins, a mere 4 percent of American currency. The Civil War upended that system (read more) and eventually led to the creation of a single currency issued by the Federal Reserve System.

Here, learn more about 10 kinds of alternative currency in use today, from Kemp-Robertson’s talk and beyond.

  1. Bitcoin. The world’s best-performing currency, according to Kemp-Robertson, Bitcoin’s value is tied to the performance of a computer network. It’s “completely decentralized—that’s the sort of scary thing about this—which is why it’s so popular,” Kemp-Robertson says. “It’s private, it’s anonymous, it’s fast, and it’s cheap.” Bitcoin is a case study in the increasing desire to place trust in technology over traditional institutions like banks.
    .
  2. Litecoins. A virtual currency based on the Bitcoin model, Litecoins have a higher limit: “The number of coins that can be mined is capped at 21 million Bitcoins and 84 million Litecoins,” explained a recent Wall Street Journal post, which also noted that Bitcoins are worth more and currently accepted more widely.
    .
  3. BerkShares. While Bitcoin and Litecoins are worldwide currencies, BerkShares are hyper-local: they’re only accepted in the Berkshires, a region in western Massachusetts. According to the BerkShares website, more than 400 Berkshires businesses accept the currency, and 13 banks serve as exchange stations. “The currency distinguishes the local businesses that accept the currency from those that do not, building stronger relationships and greater affinity between the business community and the citizens,” the site reads.
    .
  4. Equal Dollars. Philadelphia is also trying out a local currency with Equal Dollars. When you sign up to participate, you receive 50 Equal Dollars; to earn more, you can offer your own possessions in an online marketplace, volunteer or refer friends.
    .
  5. Ithaca Hours. Another hyperlocal currency, Ithaca Hours—usable only in Ithaca, New York—also hopes to boost “local economic strength and community self-reliance in ways which will support economic and social justice, ecology, community participation and human aspirations.” (For a full list of local currencies in the US, go here.)
    .
  6. Starbucks Stars. Use of Starbucks’ Stars is limited not to a particular geographic locality, but to the corporate ecosystem that is Starbucks. Once you get a Starbucks Card, you can earn Stars—which buy drinks and food—by paying with the card, using the Starbucks app, or entering Star codes from various grocery store products. According to Kemp-Robertson, 30 percent of transactions at Starbucks are made using Stars.
    .
  7. Amazon Coins. Another company-specific currency, Amazon Coins, can be exchanged for “Kindle Fire apps, games, or in-app items.” You get 500 Amazon Coins, worth $5, by purchasing a Kindle Fire, or can buy more Coins at a slight savings.
    .
  8. Sweat. Kemp-Robertson points to a particularly innovative business-specific currency in Nike’s “bid your sweat” campaign in Mexico. Your movements, energy, and calorie consumption are tracked and can be exchanged for goods, ensuring a “closed environment”—only people who (a) own and (b) use their Nike products are welcome.
    .
  9. Tide detergent. This is a barter system that’s about as far from government-backed as you could get: in 2011, it was discovered that across the US, thieves had been stealing 150-ounce bottles of Tide detergent to trade for $5 cash or $10 worth of weed or crack cocaine. An article in New York Magazine from earlier this year details the fascinating story and what it says about Tide’s super-successful branding.
    .
  10. Linden Dollars. Linden Dollars, usable within the online community Second Life, can be bought with traditional currency or earned by selling goods or offering services to other Second Life residents. Many people earn actual Linden salaries—some to the tune of a million Linden Dollars—says this article from Entrepreneur.com.
    .
  11. BONUS: Brownie Points. Granted by the universe as a reward for good deeds. Not exchangeable for tangible goods, just self-satisfaction, which we think is also important.