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Carrotmob's Capitalist Activism Goes to Sea

Words by Hannah Miller
Leadership & Transparency

One of the most interesting groups out there altering the fabric of reality is Carrotmob. The San Francisco-based organizing group started in 2008 with one email, two local indie bands, and a bunch of Facebook invites, inventing a new kind of campaign: the reverse boycott. Founder Brent Schulkin and his friend went to 23 different liquor stores in the Mission District and asked them: How much will you spend on energy efficient lighting, if we bring in hundreds of socially-minded customers for you?

They got a high bid and organized a one-day shop-a-thon that grossed over $9,000, which the K&D Liquor Store used to revamp their lighting. It was an effective grassroots and online campaign to do something that no grassroots or online campaign had ever done.

Carrotmob brings the time-tested techniques of political organizing to sustainability for a magnified impact on one store. Better still, the focus on group buying power gives small businesses a carrot instead of a stick.

And it works. Since the initial effort, Carrotmobs have been organized in six countries (soon to add a branch in Hungary), replicating the early San Francisco successes with small and varied stores, like the Bangkok grocery that stopped using plastic bags. The next iteration of Carrotmob aims to take things a step further: organizing enough spenders to change companies with global reach.

The newest Carrotmob coffee campaign is a first attempt. Instead of getting a retailer to retrofit light bulbs, they are working with organic, fair-trade coffee roaster Thanksgiving Coffee to sell a lot of Mocha Java - two bags for $26. If they can raise $150,000 by the end of the month, Thanksgiving will ship coffee beans from Latin America to Northern California with the technology that humans used for thousands of years: sails.

"One of the big contradictions in coffee is - no matter how clean it is from origin to roaster - is the fact that coffee is transported in giant container ships that burn the dirtiest bunker fuel on earth, " said Ben Corey-Moran, Thanksgiving's president. "We've always dreamed that we could sail coffee to our little harbor here in Fort Bragg."

The program was developed with Fair Transport and the Sail Transport Network, which promotes examples such as the Mast Brothers Chocolate Co. shipping 20 metric tons of cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic to Brooklyn in a schooner. Last month, the New York Times reported on new sail designs for green shipping, pointing out that "if the world's shipping fleet were a country, it would be the world's sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases."

Yes, it is nothing like anything ever done in the young history of "the green economy." But it gets people thinking about infrastructure, how things get here, and where they come from (often the most difficult job is simply developing empathy.) Change engineer Saul Alinsky, at the end of his 40-year organizing career, wrote in 1971's Rules for Radicals that the next vista for progress was in the then-new form of shareholder activism.

Hopefully, Carrotmob will inspire more such social hackers. The coffee campaign closes in five days.



Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.

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