Nice Nike runners. Did an underage girl from Punjab province stitch them? Nice ring. Did a gaggle of impoverished children mine the gold it’s made with? I love that cereal! Was it made by one of 36 companies that funded the opposition to GMO labeling in California?
It would be great to know these things, right?
“If we had the time to spend ten minutes researching every product we come into contact with, we would -- and the resources have always been there,” said 26-year-old freelance programmer Ivan Pardo, who built Buycott.
The app helps consumers make educated purchases reflecting their socio-political beliefs. But beyond information, Buycott features user-generated campaigns. Users can commit to buying products from companies that have backed equal marriage, for example.
A few weeks after quietly putting Buycott in the Apple and Android stores, Pardo contacted journalists. The next morning, his servers crashed. The app rocketed to #10 in app stores. Its success points to the widespread demand for more transparency in the corporate sphere.
“The app takes the research process and makes it instant,” said Pardo.
Could you paint me a picture of the beginning of Buycott -- what gave you the idea?
I was working a day job about three or four years ago and I sat next to a girl. She was joining a boycott and the way she was trying to keep pace with what she needed to avoid was by checking blog posts. Some guy was writing, “Avoid this company” and I thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
I don’t remember what my friend was trying to avoid, but that was insignificant. It was the fact that people were trying to organize themselves around having their buying habits reflect their principles. They didn’t have a good way to do that. I’d already made a couple of apps at this point and I wanted to improve on their methods.
What happened when you built the app and made it available?
For two or three weeks it was sitting in the app store. I only told my friends about it. Once I felt I had most of the bugs worked out, I started contacting journalists. I emailed Clare O’Conner at Forbes on a Monday night at like one in the morning. When I woke up, an article had already been written and it was receiving a lot of traffic. I didn’t sleep for the next three or four days. The servers went down. It was the top 10 app in the Apple and Android store. Then I started recruiting friends [to help run the business].
One of the things people are really picking up on is that the app doesn’t just give you information, it’s also something of a social network for consumers. Could you talk about that aspect of the app? Which campaigns have already been formed and which ones are gaining momentum?
The largest campaign at the moment is called Demand GMO Labeling. It’s a boycott of 36 companies that donated $150,000 or more to oppose GMO labeling in California during the last election cycle. They’ve got about 137,000 members at this point.
The way it works is each member can scan any product barcode they come into contact with -- whether it’s food or from the pharmacy or hardware store. The app will trace the ownership structure of that product all the way up to its top corporate parent. It then crosschecks the companies against the campaign commitments. So the user might discover their shampoo is related to a company that opposed GMO labeling and that might lead them to buy a different brand of shampoo.
How do you advise people to use this app? If I wrote out a list of all the things I’m for and against -- and I think this applies to many of us -- I might be left with very limited options as a consumer.
People are using the word Buycott a little differently than I originally imagined. Buycott with a lowercase b is the opposite of a boycott –- it means preferring a product because of the way it’s produced or the business practices of the company. I wanted to focus on the positive aspects but that’s proven to be difficult. What we can do is tell you whether something is on a list that you’ve committed to avoiding or supporting. At this point, most of the user-generated campaigns are for avoiding products.
In a larger philosophical context, we've arrived at a place where societal power structures function within a particular ecosystem of funding -- and finances are determined largely by corporate sponsorship. In a way, Buycott is asking people to follow the money. How do you think about this map you’ve created?
If boycotting Goldman Sachs or other financial institutions was possible, I would have made an app to help you do that. But the only way that most people spend their money is via consumer products. So that’s what the app focuses on.
I don’t know whether my hypothesis is right, it’s still too early to say, but the premise of the app is that organized people can effect social change if they target their spending.
Do you use the app?
I’ve joined three or four campaigns. I used it two or three hours a day when I was building it to work out all of the bugs. And I’m seeing campaigns I never would have imagined when I first created the app.
Recently someone wanted to boycott all of the sponsors of the Washington Redskins until they changed their name to something less offensive. I never would have imagined the app would be used for something like that. I thought it was a really interesting suggestion.
The boycott of ALEC -- American Legislative Exchange Council -- has been growing recently. The campaign sprouted up right after the Trayvon Martin verdict because ALEC was involved in writing the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. About 10 or 11 thousand people joined the campaign within a week or two.
One thing we’re trying to do is get nonprofits and reputable organizations to create campaigns. Because having organizations with a track record makes the campaigns more reputable.
You’ve self-funded the project up until now. If and when you do want to raise a round of funding, you’re going to be scrutinized for how you do that. How do you want to move forward?
We’ve had a lot of interest from investors. From the moment the app launched people have asked if I need any money or assistance. My thought is to stick with the people who have come to me, instead of seeking out other investors. I want to find investors who are sympathetic to the concept and aren’t just looking to get a fat return on their investment -- not that I don’t want Buycott to make a profit. But because of what we’re trying to do -- bring transparency to the marketplace -- we have additional pressure to be very upfront with our user base.
I haven’t said much about our state of funding because right now I’m paying for all of our costs out of pocket -- which is not sustainable. Eventually I am going to have to do something about funding. At that point we’ll write a blog post saying, “Here are our investors. Here are their names. Here’s what they’ve invested in before.”
Is there something you want people to think about when they come across the Buycott app?
Up until before I launched the app, the only form of online protest was petitions. Those have existed as long as I can remember -- sites like avaaz.org and change.org. Petitions have been the staple of online protest for 20 years with no advancements. I see Buycott as the next stage for how people can organize themselves using technology. I don’t want this to be the end. It would make me incredibly excited to see other people improve upon things beyond online petitions. They haven’t been very effective as far as I can tell.
Can you tell me about the upgrade coming out in a month and a half? What should people look out for?
Right now we’re working on a total redesign. I didn’t spend too much time on the social network aspect of the app on this version. You can create campaigns, trace products, and route them back to the campaign. But you can’t tell who created the campaign. I’m going to improve on that aspect of the social network.
Tons of people are asking about suggested products and a way to search brands without scanning a barcode. So we’re moving away from scanning, although it’s still going to be central to the app. For example, if you want to look up a Jaguar car, there’s no barcode to scan. But that’s data we have and we want to make it accessible to the user. We’re also focusing on the suggested product feature. There are a few surprises too.