Dangling the carrot of good environmental behavior

A new movement is bringing customers to firms opting to go green

Why would a hundred people meet for a drink at the same Zaragoza bar on a Wednesday evening? Blame Carrotmob. This US-born movement assembles "mobs" of people to get together at establishments that have pledged to use part of the proceedings to make environmentally sound changes (or else have committed to fair trade or human rights initiatives). This way, good behavior gets rewarded with real profits.

In the Zaragoza case, the bar La Imperial promised it would use 100 percent of the event's revenues to improve its water and energy efficiency. As a matter of fact, the owner made 400 euros and will spend 600 euros on low-energy light bulbs, movement-detection lights in the bathrooms and water-flow restrictors in his taps. It is a textbook example of the carrot being more effective than the stick.

"We're always on the lookout for innovative projects to replicate in Spain," says Cecilia Foronda, coordinator of the ZeroCO2 project at the Ecología y Desarrollo Foundation (Ecodes), the group that organized this first Spanish carrotmob. Foronda explains they came across a group from San Francisco on the web that was carrying out a new type of positive consumer activism: it wasn't about not buying at stores that did things badly, but about buying at stores that did things well.

"We found that interesting because it meant cooperating with the business owner and proving the power of the consumer," she says. Time magazine called carrotmobs "cooler than boycotts."

"We don't believe that carrots are more effective than sticks in every circumstance; we believe there is a time and place for each strategy, and our hope is that this will become another tool in activism," says Sarah Zisa, communications director and aide to Carrotmob founder, Brent Schulkin.

Brent and Sarah have been working on this project full time since February 2010, orchestrating campaigns "from Helsinki to Kansas, and Buenos Aires to Bangkok." Sarah figures that by late 2012 it will have completed "around 115 carrotmobs in 70 different cities in 20 countries." Anyone who registers on www.carrotmob.org can organize one, as long as they are not motivated by economic interests. Applicants must read the instructions, send a message with questions or a request for help, set clear goals, provide a sociodemographic description of the average client, and click on Start. Preparations take about two months, and, in Zisa's words, require "a small team, good organization, and staying positive and faithful to the carrotmob spirit."

Ecodes began organizing its carrotmob in October. The campaign, it was decided, would involve climate change and take place in December, coinciding with the Cancún climate summit. It would happen in Zaragoza, where Ecodes is headquartered. "We were looking for something that would attract a lot of people," recalls Foronda. They located 25 establishments in the city center that might want to participate, and went to see them with a PowerPoint presentation about carrotmobbing. "We explained that we would bring them people on a specific day if they committed to earmarking part of the proceedings to make energy-efficiency changes to their business." Several establishments offered to use 100 percent of the day's revenues to this kind of project, so in the end Ecodes had to see which project seemed better all around.

The winner was La Imperial. A few days prior to the event, Ecodes sent out messages through Facebook and Twitter. On December 15, a crowd dutifully started filing into the bar. Organizers figure that 40 percent of attendance was due to social networks, and 60 percent to word of mouth.

"The best part about carrotmobbing is that it attracts a wide range of people," says Zisa. "There is no typical carrotmobber. Each movement takes on a different shape and flavor, depending on the community and organizer."

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