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Sticks and Carrotmobs

By Erica Christoffer

Carrotmob is a nationwide consumer activism group with local chapters that reward independently-owned businesses committed to making energy-efficient upgrades.

To help make those improvements a reality, Carrotmob stages what they call "reverse boycotts." In one-day events, Carrotmob participants descend on a business of choice to purchase stuff. Although there is no contract, the business verbally commits to dedicating a portion of the money made during the "mobbing" toward energy upgrades.

Carrotmob Chicago is scheduled to descend on the Fox & Obel Market at 401 E. Illinois, near Navy Pier, this Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. The store has committed to set aside 50 percent of the business the mob brings in for efficiency upgrades. The Greater Chicago Food Depository will also be accepting donations from mobbers throughout the afternoon.

Laura Flanigan, co-vice president of action projects for the Net Impact's Chicago Professional Chapter, is one of this Carrotmob event's lead organizers. She answered a few questions about mobbing, consumer activism and what's going on this Sunday.

Q: What process does Carrotmob use to select a business? And how was Fox & Obel chosen to be mobbed?

Flanigan: The idea came to us in conjunction with the Academy of Management Conference. The conference has the theme of green management this year. Doing a Carrotmob was a natural fit.

The process is, a volunteer Carrotmob team will identify an area of the community and then canvass a specific type of business within that area. It has to be an independent business, locally-owned, with enough capacity to get 100 people in and out of the store within an hour. It also has to be a store where you can spend a little bit of money or a lot of money, as to not exclude anyone from participating.

It's difficult to dedicate money [to energy-efficient upgrades] when you're a small business, so the focus is really on bringing the tools to smaller, independently-owned businesses to make it happen.

Businesses then compete with each other, so the one selected would have committed the largest percentage of funds from the mob to go towards improvements. The business does not pay any fee to Carrotmob to participate. The San Francisco group is actually having the neighborhood vote, so the community chooses the mobbed business.

Fox & Obel here in Chicago was willing to dedicate a portion (50 percent) of the proceeds from the event to make improvements. They also have a variety of price points and space so a large group of people can come in and support mob. That's how they were chosen.

Q: What kind of improvements do businesses make with the dedicated funds?

Flanigan: It's generally energy efficiency upgrades to reduce their carbon footprint. We just did an energy audit on Fox & Obel with the Illinois Smart Energy Design Assistance Center, which is affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and assisted by the state. That audit is being processed and will show which improvements should be made, such as lighting and refrigeration.

Q: How will you follow-up with the store once the event is over and people move on?

Flanigan: Our team will stay connected to the store and we're going to be working with an energy contractor to do the work. We will actually see the work as it happens. We are in a position to stay connected and we're hoping that relationship drives the accountability once the mob is over.

Q. What kind of turnout are you expecting this Sunday?

Flanigan: We're hoping we get at least 500 folks into the mob. We want to send a clear message that Chicagoans care about and reward the companies that go above and beyond on their environmental commitment. We hope there will be lines out the front door all day.

Q. Are there any requirements for participating in the Carrotmob?

Flanigan: No, definitely not. For citizens to participate, it's just showing up the day-of.

Q: What sets Carrotmob apart in terms of its activism?

Flanigan: It's the closest thing to a win-win situation when it comes to environmental activism. Individuals don't have to sacrifice in order to demonstrate their commitment and their values. There's a lot of ways we can send market signals about our values, but we're not necessarily sure if they're being interpreted correctly. Doing something like this as a mob is always more effective. It's an easy way to send a loud message. It just so happens that the company is being rewarded with a "carrot" rather than getting the stick. There's a reason a business would want to participate and seek out participation in Carrotmob. If there's only a way we can do this for the types of things we buy, not just from where we buy them. Maybe that's the next phase of Carrotmob.

Q: A lot of environmentalists point to consumerism as being one of the root causes of our environmental problems today. How can Carrotmob reconcile that in its efforts?

Flanigan: One of the reasons Carrotmob has worked is because they're supporting stores that offer things people need. We're not talking about large chain stores. We're talking about food and other necessities - about healthier food - Fox & Obel does try to support local and organic produce providers. That's one way it's reconcilable. But that question certainly isn't lost on Carrotmob - the kinds of stores that work well with the Carrotmob model sell things people need everyday.

Q: Are there any other ways Chicagoans can get involved?

Flanigan: They can start their own mob. Anyone can do it. You don't have to be affiliated with anybody to do a successful Carrotmob, you just have to get the word out and find a business that's willing to commit.

This idea that Chicago seeks to be the greenest city in the world can only be supported by actual Chicagoans getting off their butts on a Sunday and demonstrating their commitment.


Posted on August 5, 2009

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