I first heard of the ‘Buycott App‘ via Global Food Politics, where Noah Zerbe highlighted the ease of it, as well as potential drawbacks. Now, it has made the news again for its immense popularity: according to this article, it was downloaded by so many consumers interested in making conscientious shopping decisions that it crashed the app’s site. What could possibly promise consumers so much empowerment that they flock to it in numbers reaching the tens of thousands?
This is how it works: the free app (it is actually called ‘Buycott‘) lets consumers scan the barcode of an item in the grocery store they are considering to buy, and gives them information on what brand it is from, and who owns that brand, ‘ad infinitum’ (seeing how concentrated many markets are nowadays, in the food sector you are likely to be led back to the same 4 to 5 firms anyhow – check out this amazing infographic for a drastic visual impression of the consumer goods sector concentration). This is already a great service to consumers in informing them about their product choice, since often sub-brands that are marketed as ‘alternative’ or ‘sustainable’ choice actually belong to a parent company that acts in direct opposition of the values the brand is supposed to stand for.
A second step of the Buycott app is that users can join existing, or create new, ‘buycott campaigns’ that aim to change certain behavior of firms by boycotting (purposefully not buying products from) those that do not adhere to certain values or ideas, and instead supporting companies that do. Examples of already existing campaigns include “Say No to Monsanto” (7,500), “Demand GMO Labeling” (27,400), and “Avoid Koch Industries” (22,000). The numbers in parenthesis show how many people already joined the campaigns at the time of writing – not an insubstantial number! Once you join a campaign, if you scan a product, the app will automatically tell you whether the purchase of that particular product would be in conflict with your campaign goal: e.g. if you are considering buying cookies whose brand belong to a company that spent many dollars lobbying against GMO Labeling initiatives, it would warn you that this is the case. If your product gives you a green light, you can buy it in good conscience.
The pure amount of traffic the site got – at one point, it was listed among the top-ten in the Google Play store with 100+ downloads per second – clearly shows the attractiveness of the idea of consumer activism among the public. In consumer choice theory, this idea is supported: technically, companies are supposed to respond to changes in demand since that is the only way they can maintain or expand their sales. Thus, if a sufficient large amount of consumers start boycotting you, you might well consider changing your stance since this change in behavior might hurt your profits less than all these consumers leaving you – and firms are profit-maximizers, after all!
This argument makes sense to me as well; and after being exposed to a class about Ethics in Food Consumption and Production I spend a ridiculous amount of time considering my purchasing choices and figuring out whether I am ‘putting my money where my mouth is’. If this app can make such decisions quicker and easier, I am all for it. In fact, I would argue that even a little more awareness among consumers where their food comes from, and what production conditions have to exist to justify the price you are paying, is direly needed to change our food systems.
However, Noah makes a great argument as well in warning against the complacency attached to what we consider ‘consumer activism’. In a comment responding to a question of mine, he explained that “I think that for many, consumer citizenship is not a complement to traditional forms of political participation, but their replacement. I’m similarly concerned by “clicktivism” or “slacktavism,” the idea that we can change the world by signing an online petition or clicking a link. Real change takes hard work, and my concern is that we engage in more limited forms of participation not because they are more effective but because they are easier.
An additional challenge in the conflation of consumer activism and citizenship is the problem that it privileges certain actors over others. If consumer behavior is the primary source of political agency, then those who can afford to do the most consuming have the greatest number of votes.“
I have to shamefully admit that I hadn’t considered the privilege question in this case, but it is true: if one dollar equals one vote, those on a low budget will have less ‘agency’ in changing the system than those who can afford to choose the more ethical, potentially more expensive option. This comes back to the question whether, for example, buying organic food is snobbery that only the wealthy can afford.
Still, I feel we need both, or rather, all: true grassroots bottom-up initiatives, enlightened top-down legislative changes, and a market signal that consumers aren’t content with current practices. And in giving consumers the means to make the purchases that they make count, I think the Buycott app is a great tool. I sort of wish I had a smartphone now.
What do you think? Is consumer activism and ‘clicktivism’ a cop-out or a necessary way to connect global citizens in our digital age?