The Buyer’s Dilemma

Have you ever thought about Genetically Modified Organisms, “Man, I wish I could totally avoid them?” Have you ever wanted to boycott a company like Coca-Cola, only to find out days, even weeks after your most recent grocery trip, that all that Honest Tea you buy goes straight to Coca-Cola’s coffers? Or have you ever wanted to stop child labor, or dolphin killing in Japan, or shark harvesting, or unions?

Well, there is an app for you.

Sort of.

In 2013, freelance programmer Ivan Pardo launched “Buycott.” The app lets you scan barcodes in exchange for information; you can learn who owns any company, what brands that company produces, and view a full family tree of that company and its relationships. Theoretically, Buycott will allow consumers to make educated choices about where their money goes. On its release, Forbes wrote an article, and the app grew so popular that its servers crashed.

What made the app so explosively popular? Buycott shows you a laundry list of causes called “campaigns” that you can sign up for. If you scan a product whose company conflicts with the campaign’s goals, you can learn how it detracts from a cause and make the decision whether or not to buy the product. You can also choose see if a company contributes to a particular cause, as the app says, “vote with your dollars.”

buycott2 The two most popular campaigns boast over 400,000 participants: “Demand GMO Labeling” and “Long live Palestine boycott Israel.” The first campaign is part of what drew people to the app initially; the second was started by a 16-year-old in Britain who grew frustrated with other anti-Israel campaigns that were boycotting companies he did not think supported the cause very well. Other popular causes include boycotting Coca-Cola, the Koch brothers, Monsanto, and Nestlé. There are some campaigns that give rather than boycott, as well: people can contribute to companies that support LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, or Tibet.

The campaigns can be hyper-local (like one campaign that boycotted Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign contributors) or global; it can also focus on any part of the world (another campaign boycotts dolphin slaughter in Japan).

Hopping on the app, I signed up for dozens of campaigns, just to see how my grocery list stacked up. I joined campaigns on all sides of the political spectrum, although it was a little difficult for me to find causes that are not traditionally liberal. (That said, Buycott told me that they know that many of their popular campaigns have support regardless of party lines. They list “Demand GMO Labeling” as an example.)

 

  • ReaLemon 100% Lemon Juice looks OK, only contradicting one campaign: “Say No to Monsanto.” The campaign notice informs me that because of its manufacturer, this product is likely to contain unlabeled GMOs.
  • French’s Classic Yellow Mustard, the old reliable condiment, is a minefield. It contributes to a few campaigns (“Support Union Workers” and “Equality for LGBTQ+”) but contradicts GMO labeling efforts, enables unions (huh), sometimes might maybe test on animals, and apparently does not support gun rights.
  • Log Cabin Syrup apparently does pro-GMO things. Also, Log Cabin’s parent company apparently buys their cotton from Uzbekistan, which employs child labor. (Side note: I purchased this syrup with my sad, useless Washington University meal points. So it is not my fault because WUSTL already bought it. Right?)
  • I am not even going to list all the red flags on my Nestlé Hot Cocoa, which is apparently the devil. (The gist is: all their owners are corporate power-houses and the chocolate is mysteriously harvested, probably by children.)
  • Strawberry Jell-O, which I use for my favorite Paula Dean grandma cake, actually looks pretty good. Purchasing it contributes to Planned Parenthood and LGBTQ+ campaigns, if I want to overlook the fact that its parent company uses child slaves, supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, harvests palm oil by burning down rainforests, and does not support gun rights.

 

You get the picture.

For those wondering: most of my organic food either raised multiple red flags (because many organic brands appear to be child companies of anti-organic bogeyman rebranding their products to reach pickier markets) or was nice, safe, cruelty-free, and contained to very small family businesses.

This is where some investigative prodding starts to reveal some complications in attempts to “buy responsibly,” through Buycott or otherwise.

First, I kept running into a problem where I signed up for two opposing campaigns–one that, if the campaign research was properly done, I should have one campaign that says “buy it” and another campaign that says “don’t buy it,” depending on whether I vote, say, pro Union or anti Union, or pro gun rights or anti gun rights.

Second, and sort of an extension of this first problem: sometimes the reasons for boycotting a product or company are just plain batty. Like this “boycott dolphin killing” thing I joined. I scanned some fish product from Japan. It told me not to buy it. Why?

Well, if you read the fine print…

 

Buycott

 

Yeah. A Japanese company. And if you check the list of other boycotted companies, there are 79 of them, and it gives the exact same reason for each one. “Japanese owned company.” The source? Wikipedia. A page that lists companies owned in Japan. Or, one time, a car website. The link probably got messed up.

Over 13,000 people have joined this campaign.

To me, this seems like a problem. Buycott markets itself as a reliable, though not definitive, source. It has fact-checking and user-inputs. It relies on people to do their research and contribute honest, accurate information.

Poking around in this dolphin campaign–one of the “recommended campaigns” that I did not have to go looking for because it just appeared when I started the app–I see a number of “red flags.” All these warning signs are in the very last sentences of the campaign description, under the READ MORE where some users might not look. “PLEASE help make a difference by boycotting all things Japanese until their dolphin AND whale hunting stops. … do not allow the olympics [sic] to be hosted in Japan in 2020 unless these horrific practices stop.” [Emphasis original] Whale-hunting is not mentioned in anywhere else. We are told to boycott “all things Japan” to fix this problem. And… how do the Olympics relate, exactly?

Regardless of how you feel about dolphin hunting, you have to admit that this seems a little suspect.

The quality of the app is dependent on its users’ willingness to put in research for everyone else to be lazy in the grocery store. As was the case with the previously-mentioned Israel boycott, most of the anti-Israel campaigns really do not know their politics well. (There are at least five or six other campaigns besides the most popular). But since the kid who made it knew his stuff, the list of companies and their roles in supporting Israel were much more sussed out.

Other campaigns, though, it can be hard to tell. And while it is not untrue that all these companies are Japanese, who knows whether they have anything to do with dolphin hunting. Maybe some of these companies lobby against dolphin hunts. Maybe they all hunt dolphins. Who knows. I sure cannot tell, based on the information that the campaign has given me.

Maybe this campaign is a freak accident, and there are not any others like it. This particular campaign, however, ended up being one of the first things I saw when I joined the app. In an email, Buycott explained to me that “featured campaigns are selected algorithmically.” They look at the number and rate of people joining the campaigns.

More, all of the trending, recommended campaigns—all of the campaigns that come up when you join, that you can find without actively searching—are “liberal causes.” If you want to go anti-Union or pro-guns or anti-Planned Parenthood, you have to dig.

Buycott’s terms of use explain what is and is not allowed; the basics are “anything discriminatory.” The FAQ sums up Buycott’s position: “We believe that in order to build a thriving community, we must allow campaigns expressing a wide variety of viewpoints. However, we don’t allow campaigns that discriminate on others based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”

So, everything polite is allowed. But everything is not equally shown. I did wonder—is it just the sort of person who uses this app? Are liberal users just more socially conscious about their purchases, or are conservative users driven out by all the liberal causes? But looking at the numbers, conservative campaigns are not necessarily less popular. The pro-gun and anti-union campaigns both have just as many members—and, in fact, more members—than many of the featured campaigns with liberal politics. Buycott explains that their explore feature is also algorithmically determined: “We want to highlight the campaigns that people are most likely looking for, based on trends.” So something else is driving these choices.

Based on the algorithm, that impetus is fad.

Fad’s power is not unique to Buycott. Nor does it cast an inherently negative light on Buycott’s efforts; I think it is a phenomenal concept, to equip consumers with more knowledge and introduce them to causes as issues become important to society. Instead, this dependency on fad highlights both the successes and failures of consumer activism.

If enough people get on board with boycotting 79 Japanese companies because they are Japanese and the Japanese are not stopping the dolphin hunts, momentum is created. And once that momentum exists—well, it can be hard for the average consumer to moderate, question, provoke, and persist. There is encouragement to go with the flow.

At its best, Buycott lets people organize a little better and communicate with each other about their choices; at its worst, the app just implies that it has more reliable knowledge than it does. Even then, the sources are available, for anyone who looks; it’s not hard to vet the information.

What I am saying, really, is that Buycott is a powerful tool that just does what people have already been doing for years. The problem or question here is not the app. It is the person holding the phone that downloaded it. Protest remains in the hands of the consumer.

This uncertainty of information and research-dependent process highlights the dilemma of any socially-conscious consumer, no matter your politics or cause. With all these companies out there, how can we even begin to try to support the causes we believe in? A tool like this helps, but it clearly cannot do all the work. A list created by someone else may or may not help your cause. And meanwhile, even if someone buys all-organic in an attempt to support x y and z ideologies, those purchases still conflict with many causes. And, hey, say I want to support LGBT rights but do not want to support child labor. I am out of luck, because almost all the items in my pantry that supported LGBT and women’s rights had—according to the Buycott interface—terrible labor policies and problematic international relationships.

I have to choose: do I want to support someone who says, “hey, don’t fire that person” while inadvertently supporting child labor at the same time? The plausible alternative products seem few and far between; they cost too much or are not carried locally. Or all the other options conflict with some other cause. This bind is a repeated trend throughout my pantry and, I suspect, throughout the grocery store as well. It seems impossible to hold more than three political causes if you want to consistently support, or boycott.

There is, as always, the question of what exactly diverting your dollars can even achieve. Some people argue that boycotts will hurt workers, not companies; other people say that it does not hurt workers; and still others say that it doesn’t matter, because boycotts do not actually work and multitudes of other forces do all the political heavy-lifting.

So what does it mean, really, to “vote with your dollar”? Who are you voting for? What does that vote elect? It at once matters deeply and does not matter at all.