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Ready? Set. Shop!
By Chris Smith, Photograph by Lane Hartwell | May 12, 2008
One genius environmentalist puts the flash-mob phenomenon to high-minded use.
Ordinarily, you wouldn’t give K&D Market a second look. A nondescript convenience store in the Mission, K&D (above) is best known as that place where you buy beer when you eat at Pakwan, across the street. On a recent Saturday afternoon, though, an hour-long line snaked its way out the door and all the way down the block, as hundreds waited patiently for their turn to buy Ramen and Charmin, pilsner and peanut butter.
The trigger for this consumerist orgy? Carrotmob, a new nonprofit that aims to harness the wisdom of crowds for green ends, arranged with K&D to have the store pledge to put 22 percent of the day’s sales into eco-friendly improvements, like replacing its energy-wasting lights and upgrading its ancient refrigerators. You might call Carrotmob “Flash Mob 2.0,” since it combines the whimsy of those events with the Sierra Club’s seriousness of purpose, hitting the sweet spot between the Bay Area’s two dominant poses: pointless irony and earnest do-gooderism.
Out in line, Emily Whichard had been waiting for about 20 minutes and didn’t seem to be in any hurry. “There’s a bottle of Ketel One in my future,” the UCSF medical student said with a laugh, “and it’s always better to buy your liquor where part of the profits go to environmental causes. It’s win-win.”
That’s exactly the point, according to Carrotmob founder Brent Schulkin, a 27-year-old former Googler who designs corporate games for a living. The idea, he explains, is to help the environment by doing what you were doing anyway—activism redefined as a trip to the corner store.
“I want to lower the bar to participation,” he says. Ultimately, Schulkin envisions a mob so big that it can cut deals with major corporations, rewarding responsible behavior with higher profits—to use the carrot, as it were, instead of the stick.
K&D, of course, is a long way from the Fortune 500, and nobody knows if Schulkin’s plan to teach big corporations to canter will work. And the path is fraught with peril: His decision to accept a cool $5,000 from Yahoo!, for example, engendered some hand-wringing about corporate co-opting. In truth, though, his rainmaking abilities probably bode well for Carrotmob’s chances. To watch him work is to understand that he is a “connector,” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it in The Tipping Point—the guy who knows everybody, providing the social glue that holds us together. (Schulkin says he is often described this way.) Clad in a baby-blue suit, Schulkin was a glad-handing dervish at K&D, two-stepping between the market and the sidewalk, posing for photos and greeting his followers. Who better to lead an eco-flash mob?
By the end of the afternoon, K&D had taken in about $9,300, even more than it makes on Halloween, according to manager David Lee. The market won’t be applying for LEED certification anytime soon, but it was a beginning—and proof that mobs are good for more than pillow fights.
That’s not to say it wasn’t also fun. Nina Luttinger, a mobber who showed up wearing a vibrantly orange jacket, looked around the store and crowed, “Have you ever seen so many happy faces? It’s like a party in here.”