Virtue may be its own reward, but it often comes with a hefty price tag.
This is true not only for individuals—witness, for example, the comparatively high price of organic vs. conventional produce—but also for businesses. Companies interested in making themselves more responsible rarely have the economic incentive to do so, especially in today's belt-tightening climate. In fact, more often than not, they have an incentive not to engage in practices that are better for people and the environment.
A new approach to consumer activism is out to change all that. It's called Carrotmob. A for-profit (though not-yet-profitable) project of San Francisco–based Virgance, Carrotmob aligns opposing economic incentives like a good mash-up makes disparate pop songs hook up.
How? By getting competing companies to list the green improvements they'd be willing to make to their business if they received a significant infusion of cash, and then getting consumers to band together on a given day and make coordinated purchases at the business with the strongest offer—thereby funding its commitment.
At the first Carrotmob event, which took place last year in San Francisco (and which I, flailing about in the haze of new parenthood, unfortunately missed), a convenience store called K&D Market was inundated with hundreds of customers who lined up outside for the chance to spend money there. In a few hours, the shop raked in more than three times what it normally makes on a good day. Consequently, it was able to lower its carbon footprint by replacing its lighting system with a more energy-efficient one and making improvements to its refrigerators.
Since then, Carrotmob events either have taken place or are being planned in 21 other cities, 16 of them in the U.S. Any readers out there in Portland, Oregon? Help a local business get more energy-efficient by eating some pizza this Sunday.
As someone who's obsessed with the notion of helping consumers align their values with their spending habits, I love the concept of Carrotmob. I especially love the fact that it's reward-based rather than punitive. I mean, boycotts are all well and good, but buycotts are more fun—and, it seems, potentially more powerful. Carrotmob is basically a mass buycott on steroids.
I can see only a couple of possible downsides. One occurred to me as I watched the video of the San Francisco event (see it here). I couldn't help but wonder: Say I'm at a convenience-store-type Carrotmob; how many of the products on those shelves are made by companies I really want to support? Especially if I'm at the end of the line and there's not much left to buy. I spotted in the video a lot of little packages of junk food, as well as toilet paper that for all I know is made from virgin-forest pulp.
Also, for an establishment to attract a good mob, it's got to have mass appeal. So too bad, little vegan shoe boutique, I don't think you're ever going to get a Carrotmob.
But perhaps I split hairs.
Mainly I'm happy Carrotmob exists, I look forward to the next event I can participate in, and I'm curious to see how much momentum this movement gains.