Buycotts

I always thought the opposite of a boycott was a girlcott. Turns out it’s a ‘buycott’.

In a boycott, a bunch of people punish a company they dislike by not buying their stuff. In a buycott, they reward one they like.

Here on Azimuth, Allan Erskine pointed out one organization pushing this idea: Carrotmob, founded by Brent Schulkin. Why ‘Carrotmob’? Well, while a boycott threatens a company with the ‘stick’ of economic punishment, a mob of customers serves as a ‘carrot’ to reward good behavior.

Carrotmob’s first buycott was local: they went to 23 convenience stores in San Francisco with a plan to transform one into the most environmentally-friendly store in the neighborhood, and promised to bring in a bunch of consumers to the winner to spend a bunch of money on one day. In order to receive the increased sales from this event, store owners were invited to place bids on what percentage of that revenue they’d spend on making their store more energy-efficient. The winning bid was 22%, by K & D Market. On the day of the campaign, hundreds of people arrived and spent over $9200. In exchange, the store took 22% of that revenue, and used it to do a full retrofit of their lighting system.

Can it be scaled up? Can these deals be enforced? Time will tell, but it seems like a good thing to try. For one thing, unlike a boycott, it spreads good vibes, because it’s a positive-sum game. On the other hand, over on Google+, Matt McIrvin wrote:

I’m a little skeptical that this kind of approach works over the long term, because it would have the effect of increasing the market price of “good” products through increased demand, which in turn means that anyone who doesn’t care about the attribute in question will be motivated to buy the lower-priced “bad” products instead. What you end up with is just a market sector of politically endorsed products that may do a good niche business but that most people ignore.

This is also the big problem with just telling people to go green instead of taxing or otherwise regulating environmental externalities.

Here are some good stories:

Ready? Set. Shop! One genius environmentalist puts the flash-mob phenomenon to high-minded use, San Francisco Magazine, June 2008.

Change we can profit from, The Economist, 29 January 2009.

For more, try the references here:

Carrotmob, Wikipedia.

What other innovative strategies could environmentalists use, that we should know about?

By the way, boycotts are named after Captain Charles Boycott. The story is sort of interesting…


5 Responses to Buycotts

  1. H. Vandagriff says:

    A friend who is a raging capitalist republican espouses essentially the same idea; punish by not buying from those with whom you disagree, reward those you do. The interesting thing is the active promotion of this, which I think is genius, John.

    • John Baez says:

      Yes, raging capitalists often say that the market solves many problems: if you don’t like X, don’t support it with your dollars.

      They may not like it when consumers band together to do this: organized consumers could in theory be just as threatening to some businesses as organized labor!

      But oh well: the cat’s out of the bag now.

  2. WhatInTarnation says:

    I’m one of the dozens of people I know locally and on the internet who practice this method when choosing retailers. And I agree with H.V. that it’s a movement that’s overdue for active promotion.

    I understand the reasoning behind Mr. McIrvin’s criticisms, and I certainly don’t think that grass roots consumer action should replace change in government policy or industry practices, but the various approaches are not mutually exclusive.

    I occasionally find myself guilty of the applying Mr. McIrvin’s standards to complex problems, but I try to avoid adopting positions that prevent me from taking any action at all in the face of the lack of the perfect action. Environmental change is a great example of a complex issue that requires complex and varying responses from all facets of society. Delaying action until the perfect solution reveals itself is a strategy that will yield inaction and inevitable failure.

    • John Baez says:

      We’ll have to see how well these buycotts work. They’re different than just telling people ‘buy green’, because—at least in the example given above—the consumers are actually going to businesses and saying “if you do X, we will buy lots of stuff”.

      And they buy the stuff on one day, not all the time. So the effect on prices would be somewhat different.

  3. Matías says:

    The problem exposed by Matt McIrvin is present not only in these interesting “buycotts” but also in the popular scheme of making sustainable (or organic, not quite the same) agriculture production economically viable by labelling the products as “green”. The effect of this labelling is more of partitioning the demand by finding those subgroups of the consumers who can and would buy the products for more than the market price, rather than diverting consumers from the competence.

    Sometimes these labellings, and maybe also these buycott organization’s actions, end up benefiting a few producers economically rather than helping to solve the general enviromental problems.

    Note that I understand that most of the times, sustainable production cannot compete in short-term with extractive production if the goods are indistinguishable. Maybe someone has counter-arguments for some of this affirmations, I’d like to be proved wrong.

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