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Can We Shop Our Way To Change?

Through new partnerships with major companies, the formerly tiny Carrotmob is now aiming to use consumers’ buying power to shape global supply chains.

When Carrotmob organized its first buy-in at a liquor store in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2008, it touched off a movement around the world. Since then the company has backed some 250 campaigns run by nonprofits, schools, and even city councils in 20 different countries in which mobs of people shop at small businesses—coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors—that agreed to invest the profits in environmentally friendly improvements. Now Carrotmob has brought its cause consumerism to a global scale, first with a campaign with Thanksgiving Coffee and then, announced last week, a partnership with Unilever, which will combine Carrotmob’s understanding of innovative sustainability supporting campaigns with Unilever’s massive market power.

"There’s always been this sense that someday we can go bigger and bigger and bigger," says founder Brent Schulkin. "When we’ve done stuff in the past we weren’t dealing with global supply chains. Thanksgiving is big enough that it has big company issues." Here’s the deal: If shoppers bought $150,000 in coffee through the Carrotmob website, Thanksgiving Coffee would have made initial investments in a sail-powered container ship (the first of its kind for a coffee company) that would help it cut the amount of oil it burns to bring beans to its roastery in Fort Bragg, California. Carrotmob didn’t meet their sales goal, but the funds raised will still go to clean-burning cook stoves for the communities that grow the roaster’s coffee.

The partnership with the coffee company came about when Schulkin asked Thanksgiving Coffee if there was a project they dreamed of doing, but never found economically viable. They floated the sailboat concept. "I thought that idea was so awesome," he says, "and I convinced them that they could go for it if we spent enough money." It’s the same idea that informs Carrotmob’s small projects, which are still ongoing—campaigns are coming up in Hungary, Belgium, and Sweden—just on a much larger scale. "We’ve shown that with 1,000 mobbers you can change a small business in your community," says Schulkin. "And now we want to see, what if you have 5,000, 10,000, 20,000? And then after we do that, what happens when we get 100,000 or a million people and then 50 million people?"

That’s the motivation behind the new partnership with Unilever, the world’s third largest seller of consumer packaged goods, with over 400 different brands. And while Carrotmob sees the cooperation as an opportunity to make an impact on a global scale, for Unilever it’s a marketing win: a way to authentically build environmental credibility and engage with customers. "We of course started this as an advocacy thing and that’s still what drives us and our community," says Schulkin. "But we’re learning that while we see it as advocacy they see it as the future of cause marketing and so we’re really excited that this match up seems to work for both sides."