Carrotmob proposes to buy out liquor store in exchange for environmental improvements

Brent sez, "I'm starting a new non-profit network of consumers called Carrotmob. We want to use our collective buying power as a bargaining tool in order to make corporations do environmentally friendly things. Our first 'experimental' campaign is this Saturday. We're going to get hundreds of people to show up at a liquor store in SF at 1pm and buy the place out. The store is spending 22% (they won a bidding war) of the revenue we bring in on environmental improvements to their store. Afterparty with free concert in Dolores Park. Please post or pass along if you like it..."
What sort of things are they going to spend this 22% on?

Well I assembled a team of energy experts, and we decided to go through the SF Energy Watch program. Their people are doing audits of the lighting and refrigeration systems at K & D to come up with a list of all the improvements they could make, as well as the likely cost of those improvements. Once we calculate how much cash we've brought in, they will choose which changes they want to make based on how much money they have to work with.

Link (Thanks, Brent!)


  1. This is such a great idea! Consumers of the world… unite!

    I will be on vacation in SF this weekend, so I’m definitely going to support this.

  2. Very interesting way to aggregate a group’s latent social energy to economically incentivize corporate social responsibility. Any plan that aims to “end the tradition of hostility between activists and business” is worth supporting.

    If the implementation is half as good as the writing on the website, it should easily succeed.

    The Executive Summary says that revenue for the organization will come from socially and environmentally screened advertising. As an example, it describes a potential non-evil Facebook Beacon-like “Carrotmob application” for displaying user-generated ads. That could be delicate.

    If this were happening anywhere near me, I would definitely go.

  3. Let’s put the breaks on the crazy train for a minute hear. While I too often deal with the sorry state of the world by getting off my face wasted, what is actually going on here?

    When people say something like consumer power, vote with your dollar, that logic needs to be followed up. For a company to survive, it must sell its product, yes, and not only the product but the method of selling and manufacture of the product are fair game for reasons to buy it; I think looking at more than the appearance of what we buy is a positive step. But how much power do consumers actually have? Since 90% of wealth is concentrated in 10% of the population, that means the other 90% of the population is effectively disenfranchised, since, even if they were unanimous in their voice, they represent an insignificant minority. So it isn’t in fact accurate to say you vote with your dollar, as much as it is to say the richest 10% rule by their dollar.

    I want to be clear, I’m not advocating this, because it is totally illegal, but anyone apart from the absurdly rich can do far more damage to a company throuh sabotage then bring money to a company throuh patronage. In an article in te LRB, John Lanchester speculated the consequences of a small group of people keying SUVs whenever they saw one. Very soon, he thought, owning an SUV would be untenable, once word got round of a group targeting SUVs. Of course it works better in England where SUVs are unpopular so any draconian legislation aimed to protect poor SUV drivers would be shot down, but I take his point. I feel like there are lots of positive actions to take if you care about the state of the world, but it is counterproductive to travel down the sort of dead end path here taken by Carrotmob. The governing logic needs to be followed to its conclusion, which demonstrates this to be an exercise in futility.

    Still, any excuse for a party.

  4. @ #3

    While your ideas are good as far as they go, they don’t look quite close enough to be accurate. While it is true that 90% of the wealth is controlled by 10% of the population, that 10% actively spends only a fraction of that wealth. Someone who earns 100 thousand a year is going to spend most of it in one form or another. Someone who earns (is it possible to truly deserve?) ten million a year is not likely to spend a significant fraction of their yearly earnings.

    There are very few companies that can or do survive purely on the richest 10% because while they may control more money, they spend less overall than the other 90%. If any company ever came under the sights of the 90%, they would be doomed. From Best Buy to Toyota to Walmart to The Olive Garden to anything else you can name.

    If this kind of collective consumer voting comes to pass, it could make a very real difference on a national or international scale.

  5. And the reason you want to support a liquor store is? When I saw the original headline I assumed that the goal was to close down the liquor store because of the damage they do in poor, usually racially segregated, communities. So I was a little surprised that the goal is provide a liquor store with energy efficient light bulbs.

    How about supporting a store like the Cheese Board co-op in Berkeley, or farmers markets in poor neighborhoods in Oakland or Hunters Point. If you are just looking for a piss-up and concert in the local park then say so and collect money at the gate to give to your favorite charity.

    If McDonald’s had won the store choosing lottery would you go and buy Big Macs? You can’t separate the medium from the message.

  6. #4

    For me, the technical possibility of consumer based economic change is not enough. One would think in this day and age there would be a democratic avenue pursuant to addressing the problem of climate change; however, there is a direct inverse correlation between how democratic a government is, and the power that government can legally exert over trade. funny, that, innit?

    I’m reminded of what once happened with the Old Firm football teams in Scotland. Celtic fans would boycott the Rangers sponsor, to the point where the sponsor, McEwan beer, took a sizable hit. Eventually, they decided on a system where both teams were sponsored by one company, Carling. Is that not what is happening with the environment? Companies are sponsoring both sides of the issue, investing in green energy or whatever, while on the other hand, deepening that which led to an environmental crisis in the first place: concentration of power in the hands of a few. There is good reason for antagonism between activists and business, since it is business centered political philosophy which led to it all going a bit tits up in the first place, from the activist pov. I wont patronise people on the thread with Marxist slogans or anything, but still, never stop with an easy answer; it always goes deeper.


    True. Petro companies probably give the most to green causes. Let’s all bathe in petro to help them help the environment.

  7. #5,
    Your personal animus toward liquor stores is not universal. This particular store sounds fairly local, and interested–it entered into competitive bidding with other businesses for this.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good–as a result of this, SF will use slightly less electricity. That’s good. You can’t demand that a bunch of people you don’t know change their priorities to solve a problem that you, and not they, see more crucial than the problem they’ve set out to solve.

  8. Hey everyone, thanks for the feedback! And Cory, thanks for posting! This is my plan so let me respond on a few points…

    @#3 One thing to point out is that when we move on past liquor stores to take on big brands with more global campaigns, there are going to be 2 elements to the “carrot” that we offer. One will be the cash we bring in. I agree with #4 about the power that the 90% has in this regard, but the other, perhaps more powerful element of the carrot is reputation value. The 90% has complete control over what this company’s reputation will be. Are they good, or are they bad? Of course, my belief is that all companies are partly good or partly bad. But the fact is that we can create a strong impression that will help one company become known as “the good company” in it’s industry. This would be a conditional, temporary sort of endorsement, and it would be justified by the powerful environmental steps they would have to take to get the endorsement. I think the value of that endorsement (assuming this idea catches on and gets big, etc) may be more important to companies than the actual cash.

    @#5 Sorry you feel that way. We’re not out to eliminate “vice”. We’re also not going to limit our attention to those businesses that already seem “good”. Carbon emissions are carbon emissions, and we need to cut them down EVERYWHERE. I chose a liquor store, (which is actually more of a market that sells lots of regular groceries) because it’s a business where a lot of people can spend a lot of money in a very short amount of time, and they can do it by spending on things that they are likely to need to buy anyway. In this way, the consumer sacrifices nothing and achieves a great deal….

    @ #7 I agree that companies who engage in our campaigns may be playing both sides of the field. They may be full of it. It doesn’t matter. I don’t expect anything more of the companies than their usual profit-seeking behavior. We’re not trying to convince anyone of anything, we’re just making deals. If they agree to spend 5 million to put solar panels on their factories, and that’s an important action from our perspective, we’re going to get it done. We won’t be refusing to talk to companies just because they have irresponsible packaging or a bad maternity leave policy or something. One concrete step at a time is what we’re about….

  9. Schulkin:

    Fair play to you mate. I had other campaigns on my mind in the above posts more then yours, which is, after all, appropriately modest in ambition. Do hope it comes off well.

  10. They may be full of it. It doesn’t matter. I don’t expect anything more of the companies than their usual profit-seeking behavior. We’re not trying to convince anyone of anything, we’re just making deals.

    Not that you guys are dumb – I’m sure you’ve given this campaign a lot of thought and internal debate – but what makes you think that you’re getting the better half of these deals?

    You made a couple points: The main “carrot” the campaign is bestowing is a positive, eco-friendly image. You’re willing to deal with businesses that aren’t eco-friendly. And ultimately, you don’t expect the business to be doing anything but looking out for its bottom line.

    If you take all these points together, it seems that the campaign could easily be construed as “greenwashing”. Basically you’re making a deal to improve the environmental image of a company, regardless of their overall business practices.

    I get the metaphor of the “carrot”, and it’s true that in general it’s been an under-used tool. I guess I would just suggest being very careful when “cooperating” with businesses, because they’re often much more clever than well-meaning activists when it comes to manipulating public opinion. If a company is excited about making a deal with you when their overall business model shows no concern for the environment, there’s good reason to be suspicious.

  11. @9 — It’s so great to see the subject of the article jump into the lion’s den. I do so appreciate a good debate! :D

    @11 — I actually agree with Schulkin’s idea in this respect. If activists never compromise, always represent unrealistic ideals, and continue to stay more means-oriented than goal-oriented, they will never accomplish anything in a capitalist, pragmatic world. Regardless of the companies’ intentions or ill-will, the “proof is in the pudding:” if the most evil company in the world installs solar panels, it’s less carbon emissions, period. Let an activist group dedicated to employee treatment deal with that. That’s not this group’s goal… If the company doesn’t care at all about the environment, then, if anything, they’re a BETTER target for this group to make “deals” with. As long as they follow through with their side of the bargain, it’s a net gain for the environment. If they don’t follow through, their image will not be aided, but tarnished (more so than before), and the very consumers they wished to attract will turn on them (since they are a shared set with this group, by necessity!). Win-win.

  12. @12: You’re absolutely right that activists should look toward practical solutions and compromises that move us in the right direction.

    But you’re not right that any time a company does something environmentally friendly it’s a ‘net gain’ for the environment. I wish that were the way of things, but unfortunately the world of commercial public relations is much more sordid and complex.

    Many large, environmentally destructive corporations do environmentally positive things all the time. They install solar panels, they give grants to foundations and think-tanks, build electric cars, whatever. In most cases, this is not an effort to genuinely help protect the environment. It is a calculated PR campaign intended to establish an eco-friendly reputation for the company. This reputation is vital to a company which is engaged in hugely destructive activity, because it helps insulate them from public criticism and mass outrage – forces which can, if sufficiently angered, force the company to change their actual business practices.

    Basically, McDonalds is responsible for a mind-boggling amount of rainforest destruction in Brazil, but if they have a reputation for planting trees in urban areas and using 10% recycled paper, it’s a lot less likely most people will associate them with environmental destruction. Therefore, the tree planting and recycling was a net loss for the environment, because it was actually a component in their campaign to continue a destructive business model.

    So that’s the basic theory of why we shouldn’t pat businesses on the back every time they make a concession to environmentalism. I’m not necessarily saying Carrotmob is doing this, but there’s definitely the potential for it to play out like that, so I say be cautious.

  13. @ #13 Good point. The most important thing that I think you’re getting at is that there need to be tough standards to ensure that we DO get a better part of the deal, and that we’re not settling for some piddly insignificant action and offering a huge amount of “greenwashing” in return. And this sort of gets into the great number of “slippery slopes” that are involved with this model, as I discuss a little in my page about possible revenue models.

    I think a key part will be pitting companies against their competitors, and letting the market drive them to make stronger and stronger commitments….We’re not just going to say “hey Nike, start sourcing fair-trade shoe rubber and we’ll give you a marketing campaign!” Instead it would be more like, “greetings shoe industry, we want to see fair-trade rubber (or whatever). Who has a proposal that will impress us?” Then Adidas and Reebok (who, as non-leading brands have more incentive to try to improve their reputation) might compete with who was willing to buy more rubber from the fair-trade collective, or use only recycled cardboard on their little pricetags, or whatever. So Adidas might be pushed to do more by their desire to deprive Reebok from any gains. Only one of them would be rewarded. Whoever had the strongest offer. The fact that only one company gets the reward makes the reward that much more valuable. So hopefully this will result in actions that are practical and feasible for the company, as well as impressive enough for our standards….

  14. I like the idea of giving a company business if they improve their environmental impact. They get the money they want, you get the booze you want, and you also get your way without violence, protests, or negative pressure.

    Although I do find a liquer store a bit unsavory. It’s a free country and no one sticks a bottle in your hand and forces you to drink. I just hope you have sober drivers.

    “For the life of me I cannot remember what made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise”

  15. While it is true that 90% of the wealth is controlled by 10% of the population, that 10% actively spends only a fraction of that wealth. Someone who earns 100 thousand a year is going to spend most of it in one form or another. Someone who earns (is it possible to truly deserve?) ten million a year is not likely to spend a significant fraction of their yearly earnings.

    The wealth that second guy holds (doesn’t spend) isn’t going to be sitting around in gold bars in a vault somewhere. It will be spent, but on things that hold or increase their value, like stocks. Even if it’s just sitting in a bank account the bank is going to be loaning it out 10 times over for others to spend (see fractional reserve banking).

    So just because the rich guy isn’t spending they same way doesn’t mean his money isn’t active in the economy, he just doesn’t EXpend as large a proportion of his money as the other guy.

  16. try it,see if it works. There is always Pitchforkmob (with torches and hoods as well) for later if carrots aren’t working.

  17. Yeah, it’s a fairly good idea, and certainly worth a try. I wouldn’t personally participate, because I already have a set of demands of major businesses which they have not met (and are unfortunately unlikely to barring a serious shake-up), and therefore I’ll continue boycotting them.

    But for people who already support unethical businesses constantly, this may be something that could reach them.

  18. This isn’t about liquor or big macs. A business is a business — its role is to make money and obey the law, not to be ethical. Even Honest Jim’s Wind-Powered Soy Frisbees and Hempen Footwear is still governed more by economics than by social responsibility. The fact that a business that some will perceive as “evil” is being economically influenced to act socially responsible is part of the whole point.

    Gas companies give to green causes because of the economic benefit of improved reputation. This project seeks to further leverage that reality.

    The NYTimes reported that biofuels were also a net loss for the environment — because carbon-cleaning rainforests were being cut down to plant biofuel crops. The economics outweighed the fallacy of the “green” patina.

    It’s so refreshing to see someone refusing to label companies as “good”, “bad”, or “green”.

    The power of the group can be leveraged to design and build a perfectly functioning crazy train, and then to drive it all the way to CrazyTown.

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