Forget sticks, and stick with carrots instead. So says Brent Schulkin, founder of a fledgling movement of activist consumers employing a kind of reverse boycott that he calls a Carrotmob. The concept is simple: instead of steering clear of environmentally backward stores, why not reward businesses with mass purchases if they promise to use some of the money to get greener?
"Traditional activism revolves around conflict," says Schulkin, 28, a San Franciscobased activist turned entrepreneur. "Boycotting, protesting, lawsuits it's about going into attack mode," says the former Googler and onetime game developer. "What's unique about a Carrotmob is that there are no enemies." The focus is on positive cooperation, using the power of the casual consumer to help save the planet. (See pictures of a grocery-store auction.)
The movement was born on March 29, 2008, when hundreds of green-minded patrons poured into a San Francisco convenience store after Schulkin solicited bids from 23 stores in the area to find the business that would promise to spend the highest percentage of Carrotmob profits on more energy-efficient lighting. The crowd spent more than $9,200 at the K&D Market, which then fulfilled its pledge to plow 22% of the day's revenue into greener lighting with the haul from the Carrotmob providing enough cash to make all the improvements recommended by an energy auditor (and Carrotmob supporter).
Since then, Carrotmobs have branched out to 10 other U.S. cities with offshoots in Finland and France and this summer will be expanding into Philadelphia, where hundreds of consumer activists are gathering today to discuss ethos and strategy. Organizer Tony Montagnaro, 19, a sophomore at Rutgers, has been lugging 50-lb. bags of carrots across Philadelphia's college campuses, handing out thousands of carrots labeled with his blog address to spread the word about Carrotmobbing. The New Jersey student and part-time pizza chef says his carrot-toting antics are inspired by Schulkin's manifesto/music-video mash-up. But the biggest surprise to Montagnaro who says he plans to start aiming Carrotmobs at small stores in the center of Philadelphia is how quickly older people grasp the concept. "Someone 65 or 70 often gets this right away," he says. "People my age can be slower." (See 10 things to buy during the recession.)
The reverse boycott is perfect for the growing cadre of slactivists slackers who care just enough about causes to sign online petitions and join Facebook protest pages but lack the time, money or drive to do much else.
Carrotmobs also carry extra appeal during tough economic times. Participants don't have to donate anything. They just shop for products they were planning to buy anyway, adjusting the time and place of purchase. By doing so, they help green a local business.
So what's next for Carrotmobbers? In addition to Montagnaro's plans for Philadelphia, activists in Hoboken, N.J., Kansas City, Mo., and elsewhere are gathering forces through Facebook, Twitter and the main Carrotmob.org hub.
Meanwhile, Schulkin is focusing on a for-profit Carrotmob spinoff called Virgance, which starts up and acquires small organizations that offer collaborative market solutions to social and environmental challenges. One of the first fruits of the effort is 1BOG, a community-based program that organizes residents locally to negotiate group discounts from companies that install solar-energy panels. Says Schulkin: "What's good for activism is also good for business." Carrots are looking greener every day.