Forget armchair activism, new app Buycott helps people shop with a conscience

By Erin Griffith , written on May 20, 2013

From The News Desk

In theory, most of us are opposed to the idea of esoteric chemicals and other potentially toxic things in our food. When pressed, not many people are going to say "I hate the environment and prefer to eat chemical-laden packaged foods." But in practice, that's not always how it works out. It's inconvenient to seek out products that do everything right (local! organic! hormone free! cage free! cruelty free!) and when we do find them, they're too expensive. Cost and convenience often win.

Meanwhile, the digital generation gets accused of being all talk and no action on these issues. We "like" the local farmer's market on Facebook, but we still eat Lindt chocolate  or Gatorade, both of which apparently use ingredients from the the evil seed patenting conglomerate Monsanto.

Today I discovered an app that solves the armchair activism problem in such a simple and genius way that I'm shocked it hasn't been thought of before: Buycott helps you boycott brands associated with actions you don't like.

The app has exploded in popularity in the last week; Ivan Pardo, who built it as a side project, has barely been able to keep the app up and running. It's been buoyed by Monsanto's recent supreme court win, which states that farmers cannot replant seeds harvested from their patented Roundup Ready plants. Monsanto controls 90 percent of the soybean market.

It's difficult to downright impossible to know which companies use genetically modified soybeans from Monsanto. Buyout allows you to scan the label of a food package, and tell you whether the profits on that sale will end up in the hands of a company you don't want to support. It takes the confusion out of eating with a conscious, navigating the ridiculously complex web of ownership of these massive food companies. It makes it easy to actually act on causes you care about, while sending a strong message to companies you dislike. Withholding your money is what hurts them the most.

It goes beyond food. Buycott highlights companies related to a variety of causes, allowing you to boycott companies that supported SOPA / PIPA, products created by climate change denier Koch Industries, or companies that have fought against gay marriage.

The beauty of this platform is that it's cause-agnostic. Maybe you can't afford to care about buying sustainable, local, organic food, but the thought of spending money at an establishment that opposes gay rights is appalling. You just join the campaigh, and Buycott tells you that the brands Absolut Vodka, Levi's and Starbucks support gay rights, and that you should avoid Chick-fil-A (obviously) and Exxon Mobil Corporation.

The only problem with Buycott is that you might walk away from the app wondering if there is anything out there that's acceptable to buy. The boycott targets in some of the campaigns look like comprehensive lists of every large company in the country. The app doesn't guarantee the accuracy of every target because the companies are added via crowdsourcing. There often aren't well-articulated proof points for why certain companies are associated with certain causes, though Buyout allows contributors to enter a source for their information. Likewise there are repeat causes and overlap.

The Occupy movement, as outlined by this excellent New Yorker story, eventually collapsed, having too many divergent interests fight over what the disorganized, decentralized cause should be all about. Buycott, like many causes that have momentum, could also run that risk. But as Buycott becomes more sophisticated and more users join, the hope is that it'll become more trustworthy, too. If worked for Wikipedia, it can work for worthy causes.

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