What if I told you that the brand of toilet paper you buy is likely owned by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who not only use sales from their paper products to fund the climate change denial movement, but also plan to contribute a whopping $890 million to elect a Republican president in 2016 -- more money than any political contribution in history?
Considering the facts that almost every past U.S president elected has been the person with the most campaign money, one could argue that every wipe you take is in some small way a political act (and ironically, may be helping to elect someone you consider a real "doodyhead").
To be fair, most of our purchases are political. Those colorful jellybeans you just gobbled down? Owned by a company that’s quietly donated thousands to repealing trans students' rights. That all-natural organic/GMO-free brand of tomato sauce you bought? Owned by a larger company that’s funneled millions of dollars into blocking GMO labeling laws.
Regardless of your stance on these issues, wouldn't you like to have the option to know these things before making a purchase?
Unfortunately, where the dollars we spend at the supermarket eventually end up is often a lot more confusing (and disturbing) than one would assume from just looking at a products' glossy packaging.
Now, a new app hopes to change that. Buycott allows you scan grocery items to learn more about the companies behind them -- and take action by joining campaigns, calling out and boycotting (er... Buycotting) companies when they do things you believe to be unethical and finding alternative companies to support.
MTV tested out the app and interviewed Buycott’s founder, 27-year-old Ivan Pardo, on the day of Buycott’s relaunch to learn more about how he hopes to change the way we shop -- and, the hope is, to change the world. A condensed version of our conversation is below.
MTV: What is the purpose of Buycott?
IVAN PARDO: I made Buycott as an easy empowering way to “Vote with your Wallet.” Essentially what that means is I want to make it easy for people buy products that you believe in, and when you come across a product that doesn't match your principles, we want to make it easy for you to make that determination and then communicate your purchase decision to the company.
MTV: Why do you think it’s important for us to make informed shopping decisions (besides feeling like a “good person”)?
IVAN PARDO: Every dollar you spend is a vote for the type of world you want to see. I think that if youre spending dollars buying products that support things that are against your values then you're complicit in allowing those values to be the norm. … What we hope to accomplish is allow people to leverage their purchase decisions to create change in the world.
MTV: What inspired you to start Buycott?
IVAN PARDO: I had a coworker who was trying to avoid companies that sponsor The Glenn Beck show. Some guy put together a list of products owned by these companies on a blog, and my coworker was trying to memorize this list of products so she could avoid them.
It wasn’t that I was super passionate about Glenn Beck, but I thought about the fact that there are a lot of other issues activists are trying to overcome by making wiser purchasing decisions -- and seeing this current approach of memorizing a list seemed very time consuming. I figured there was a better way to do it using technology. I really believe that when you put more power in the hands of the people, the outcome is going end up better than if they were blind.
MTV: What are the differences between your last version you made in 2013 and this new version of Buycott you're launching this week?
IVAN PARDO: To put it simply, the old original app was about getting informed and this new one is about getting informed and then taking action. I think the "taking action" aspect is what the original app was missing, and I think hopefully we're delivering on the promise you can actually vote with your wallet rather than just learn about products.
We don’t just want to be a way for you to feel good about your decision, but we also want you to actually create change through those decisions and a big part of that is communicating your motivations and decisions to the company.
TFW you use Buycott to scan your favorite GMO-free brand and learn is actually owned by a larger company against GMO labeling.
MTV: You’ve mentioned that you’ve geared Buycott towards millennial users. Why?
IVAN PARDO: Studies show 48 percent of global consumers aged 18 to 25 believe that their consumption choices can change society more than politicians. This is exactly who we're trying to reach with this major overhaul of Buycott. We've made it super simple and fun to find power and effect change by making informed buying decisions. If you look at the number of older people who say yes to that question, the number is much smaller.
MTV: Why do you think that is?
IVAN PARDO: I think older people have this memory of the Ralph Naders and politicians like that, who were able to pass things in Congress -- who remember a somewhat functioning government 30, 40 years ago -- so they think there is still hope if we do things the traditional way. But I think the young people have seen what’s happening, and know no other system besides an inoperative one that we have right now, so they’re looking for an alternative to relying solely on voting.
MTV: Would you say you feel that our purchases are more effective than politics and voting?
IVAN PARDO: Yes, I think that. I’m not very optimistic about the Republicrats or anyone in the existing system creating anything that’s worthwhile so yeah, until we get money out of politics, I think politicians will only answer to their campaign donors and not the people.
MTV: Do you feel Buycott is actually changing the way companies behave?
IVAN PARDO: Maybe a month ago Whole Foods decided they weren’t going to use prison labor in their products -- but whether we can take credit for that, we don’t know. But that’s one of [our] bigger campaigns.
I know Mars Company decided they were no longer opposed to GMO labeling -- because of consumer pressure. They are one of the only large corporations to switch positions on that, but I think a lot more will be coming in the next year or so. Right now we have 1.5 million users, but we hope to get it to 15 million users by the end of next year with this new update.
I definitely expects more changes since the new version has an Activism component where you call out companies via their social media.
MTV: Wow, I had no idea that Whole Foods used prison labor. The thought of some foodie carrying a Mason jar, unaware his quinoa roast was made by a convicted felon is pretty surreal.
IVAN PARDO: And he was paying full price for it! That's what I want Buycott to make people realize: The companies we might think of as "good" like Whole Foods -- you always have to be careful about them too.
For example, Publix -- a grocery chain in the Southeast has a fantastic image -- they're the largest employee-owned company. They have a pharmacy that gives out free generic drugs, but not everything that they do is good. The farmers that grow their tomatoes work extremely hard yet live in poverty, but Publix refuses to pay them even just a penny more per pound of tomatoes.
Walmart and a lot of these other companies with less positive images -- even McDonald's -- have taken the right side and given farm workers the penny per pound increase they're asking for but Publix refuses to do it. ... So I think that being a company that has a good image gives you leverage to not give into activist demands, whereas if you're a McDonald's or Walmart, you're already so aware of being put on blast that you want to sort of stop it immediately.
Yay! My favorite lentil soup is not owned by a company secretly funding anti-GMO labeling laws or child labor!
MTV: Is it possible to make informed and conscious shopping decisions on a budget?
IVAN PARDO: Absolutely. I get this question a lot. Some people think Buycott is just something for "the first world" but in fact Buycott is for everyone from any socio-economic background. Looking in the international context, half of our users are outside the U.S.
The largest country per capita in terms of Buycott usage would be Malaysia. Their per capita income is significantly lower than it is in the US. ... I think they have certain Malaysian issues that they care about strongly enough about, that even though they might not have as much money in their wallets as an average American, they’re still able to use their influence and purchase decisions.
... Not to mention the price is not always different from an ethical and unethical product. Even if you shop at Trader Joe’s, they claim none of their products have GMOs, a big priority for some, and yet it's cheaper or the same price as shopping at Safeway (which does use GMOs). It is a falsity that you have to spend more money to do good with your purchasing decisions.
MTV: With the levels of overproduction and consumption of natural resources, what would you say to people who think it’s better to stop shopping all together?
IVAN PARDO: I’d say go for it. I think that’s a great idea -- I know personally I don’t like shopping and I hate going to the store but I still have to buy a few products a week. It’s unavoidable.
MTV: Yeah, I guess we can’t survive on Soylent.
IVAN PARDO: Exactly.
MTV: With all the crazy news out there, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic for mankind?
IVAN PARDO: The upsurge in activist energy in the last year and a half makes me very optimistic. Maybe this is just me living on the west coast, but the energy I see among activist groups is stronger than anything I have ever seen in my life -- and what I imagine has been seen since the late ‘60s. ... At the time, politicians like Ralph Nader and the group of lawyers he worked with pushed this legislation into Congress, and I think sort of the reason they were able to do that was because legislators were afraid of people rising up -- of the activist energy out there -- so they were responding to it. ...
I think that if there is any hope in delivering some sort of good legislation or changing the way that politics works in Washington -- or the world itself -- it is not going to happen on it’s own - it’s going to take really strong pressure from the ground up.