Voting with Your Dollars… and Carrots!

Money in hand
Image courtesy of dan at

Naomi Horst explains a positive spin on boycotting – buycotting. 

As concerned consumers, we want our dollars to mean something. Each dollar we spend can communicate our values and demands as consumers to producers. This idea has a long history, and with roots back to the early 1900s, when the economist Fetter wrote “The market is a democracy where every penny gives the right to vote.”

This is the idea behind ethical consumption. Ethical consumption employs market based campaigns to promote sustainability and social justice goals within consumer-society. We can follow the crowd and pick the least expensive coffee or we can oppose economic rationality and choose the more expensive fair trade coffee because we believe in its message.

Ethical consumption activities have been criticized for being too independently focused. Critics say that pitting individuals against global institutions is inevitably a losing battle. According to these critics, this individually focussed approach can lead to overwhelming feelings of apathy and worrying that individual purchases won’t make a difference. Current research is looking into how to transform ethical consumption from an individual action to a collective activity.

The Carrot vs the Stick

A relatively new example of collective ethical consumption is the Carrotmob – a temporary buycott in the form of a purchase flash mob. A buycott refers to the opposite of a boycott.  A boycott aims to influence producers by drawing negative attention to their practices and refusing to purchase their products or participate in their businesses. A buycott promotes social change by providing positive incentives.

The name Carrotmob comes from the old idiom of getting a donkey to move by hitting it with a stick or dangling a carrot in front of it.  As opposed to hitting the stores with a stick, buycotters choose to dangle a carrot in front of them. The idea of the Carrotmob first emerged in 2008, when Brent Schukin asked 22 liquor stores in California to improve their energy efficiency in exchange for a day of promised increased revenue. The business who promised to divert the highest percentage of profits from the day of the event would be host to the first Carrotmob. K&D Liquor won the auction by promising to invest 22% of their profit to energy retrofits.

Coming Soon to Your Facebook News Feed!

Presently, there have been over 250 carrotmobs in over 20 countries across the world. The campaigns have supported practices such as promoting fair trade products, reducing energy consumption, or purchasing sustainably sourced meat or fish. These events employ social media to raise awareness and recruit participants for their campaigns. Campaigns are typically focused on local businesses, and promote attainable changes towards sustainable purchasing habits and business practices.

To learn more about Carrotmobs and how you can participate, visit their website!

Naomi Horst is a recent graduate of the Environment & Resource Studies undergraduate program at UWaterloo. She is currently a Master of Arts student at the University of Guelph where she is conducting research on ethical consumption.