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A little mob money can nudge businesses to help save the Earth

Mary Fay Coady, dressed as a giant carrot, at G?s Fine Foods in Toronto during a Carrotmob, in which a crowd of shoppers all go to one store.

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

When G's Fine Foods got mobbed on the weekend, no pitchforks were involved. But a dancing carrot and tomato showed up.

At noon on Saturday, more than 200 shoppers, led by the costumed duo, descended on G's Fine Foods. The deal? They would concentrate their purchasing power on the independent Toronto grocery store that day and, in return, owner Jigme Gyaltsan would put 100 per cent of the revenue toward energy-efficient improvements.

"I have wanted to make my store more environmentally sustainable for a while," said Mr. Gyaltsan, who made $9,516 in revenue, up 48 per cent compared with a previous Saturday. "Now I have been given the opportunity."

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The shoppers were members of Carrotmob, a network of people on five continents who use collective consumerism to bring about social change. Usually spearheaded by community and student activists, getting the word out for a mob is both high and low tech: Facebook, Twitter and pounding the pavement. Organizers approach several businesses to see if they would like to compete for the mob's money. In some instances, a store wins outright with its bid; in other cities, there is online polling to choose the winner.

There are no guarantees, only the promise by the business to follow through. Although there have been a handful of businesses that have broken their word, "buycotting" is mostly win-win. There's nothing negative: The business gets free positive marketing and an enhanced reputation and there's action on the environment.

The organizers also try to give the event a sense of occasion, says Nico Koenig, one of the activists behind the Toronto Carrotmob. In addition to the people dressed as a carrot and a tomato, "we had 20 drums for people to play, we had a band outside," he says. There was also a performance by Otesha, an environmental theatre troupe.

Last fall, Discovery Coffee in Victoria was the first to get "carroted" in Canada. It spent the $3,000 it received on improving its waste-disposal system and now recycles 95 per cent of its waste. Victoria's Wannawafel was mobbed last month, and the entire $2,135 it got was committed to improving waste management. The Vancouver Carrotmob is in the midst of voting for which Main Street coffee shop will get mobbed and there are plans for a mob in Halifax this summer.

Joshua Schmidt of Small Feet Inc., a company that helps businesses go green and is one of the Victoria organizers, sees the attraction in the direct local impact. "It has to have that very strong local focus for a community to take on and to take ownership over."

The idea was born in San Francisco in 2008, when Brent Schulkin, a social entrepreneur, realized that consumers, when there's a critical mass, can demand businesses to make positive changes.

With almost 60 cities worldwide having participated, Mr. Schulkin's ambitions are growing. He wants to improve the technology so that it's easier to organize a mob. And with more data and a closer connection with members, he wants to effect change on a bigger scale. "I want to find ways to aggregate all these people around the world into a more global, co-ordinated network that can have spending power to have big, big brands compete," he said

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Carrotmob is one of a growing number of efforts to connect groups and businesses in a meaningful way. Crop Mob, started by young agrarians in North Carolina, helps members get their hands dirty - literally - by providing volunteer labour to sustainable farms.

Their first event, in 2008, saw 19 people harvest, sort and box 1,600 pounds of sweet potatoes at Piedmont Biofarm in two and a half hours. Now, there are more than 25 Crop Mobs across the U.S., including one that recently worked on a rooftop farm in Brooklyn.

The benefits of the new mob mentality aren't lost on business owners. Mr. Gyaltsan of G's Fine Foods had bid against four other businesses in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood that Mr. Koenig and friends had canvassed. He specifically promised he would commit all of the revenue from 12 to 4 p.m. toward energy-efficiency improvements. But after witnessing the event's success - it was the largest North American Carrotmob to date - he decided to use the entire day's earnings for the renovations, which will be determined in the coming weeks with the non-profit consultants Windfall Ecology Centre.

He also agreed to start carrying 15 Certified Local Sustainable producers. Mr. Koenig says it was important to go beyond the easy sell of energy efficiency and "influence how Jigme actually buys food."

Mr. Koenig is already eyeing June for another mob. Having got the word out this time, he hopes that people will no longer ask, "What's a Carrotmob?" Instead, "they'll say, 'When do I go?' "

Special to The Globe and Mail

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