Consumer Nation

Your Smartphone Can Change the World, One Dollar at a Time

Voting with your dollar just got a little bit easier.

Smartphone apps that push consumers to buy only from retailers that share a consumer’s personal beliefs about social and political issues are popping up in the app store.

Buying For Equality 2010

Advocacy organizations are mounting a mobile marketing push to promote more responsible shopping with apps that give consumers the scoop on how a corporation's policies and actions align with the shopper's own views on issues like sustainability and human rights. The apps encourage consumers to only buy products and shop at retailers that share the same moral pillars as the shopper.

“Smartphones are changing the way people are living their lives. They (apps) influence spending decisions and this is the next evolution of that,” Scott Ellison, mobile retail analyst for IDC, said. “Make an app easy, intuitive and fun and people will begin to change their behavior.”

And advocates are hoping that change in consumer behavior will translate into change in corporate behavior.

Tapping into the App World for Change

The Human Right’s Campaign launched their Buying for Equality app last Tuesday. The app rates companies using its 2010 Corporate Equality Index, an annual report that scores companies on a scale from 1 to 100 based on how well their policies support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Such policies include anti-discrimination protections, domestic partner benefits and diversity training.

Corporations in the app are color-coded based on their score either green, yellow or red. Green (score: 80-100) means the company supports the cause, yellow (score: 46-79) represents companies working towards supporting the cause and red (score: 0-45) indicating the company has not taken many steps to supporting the cause.

Although the app was initiated to help its core supporters — a loyal group of consumers whose buying power was projected to be about $712 billion in 2008, according to the marketing firm Whiteck-Combs Communications — HRC sees the app becoming a tool for any shopper looking to be more conscious. The app has gained over 4,000 users in its first week, Eric Bloem, the deputy director for the Workplace Project for HRC.

“This year we wanted to reach more folks and gain more momentum, so when people are going to the shopping cart they can make decisions that support LGBT people,” said Bloem.

Apps dealing with sustainability have been around a little while longer, and have already gained some ground in navigating the app marketing front, Ellis said.

Find Green, an app developed by and 3rdWhale, allows users to find local sustainable retailers in their area based off of the user’s location, which is tracked from the smartphone’s GPS system.

These apps are effective because they provide consumers information in real-time, allowing users instant access to information right when they are making a decision about whether to purchase a product, an edge that ultimately influences a shopper's decision, Ellison said.

Although apps like Find Green and Buy for Equality are originally developed to target a familiar audience, organizations are hopeful they will reach outside their niche community for a far greater impact via consumer spending.

But advocacy apps are going to need some help before they can become mainstream, Ellison said.

Getting the Word Out

Nonprofit apps are heavily dependent on free media and the hopes of becoming viral, and although this strategy may work for a select few, it’s a still a risky bet.

Advocacy apps that do catch on to the consumer also have to stay innovative to keep consumers active in using the app, Ellison said. Integrating functionalities like social networking, user feedback and easy access to GPS mapping in apps is essential for consumers to stay active in using the apps. is starting to practice such innovation by launching a coupon service, which will send users coupons for sustainable retailers in their area. The service is already offered in Vancouver, Canada, but will launch for the US in the coming weeks, Chariss McAulisse, CEO of

One challenge non-profits may get to worry less about, however, is finding funding to develop an app for their organization, thanks to new startups like, which allows users to use their program to build their own app for a much cheaper price, said Heather Mansfield, CEO and owner of the digital marketing firm DIOSA Communications.

Mansfield gives webinars to nonprofits on how to integrate digital platforms into their marketing strategy. Tuesday she presented a webinar that helped explain how non-profit groups can utilize the mobile platform via apps, a strategy she said could be a force for advocacy groups.

And with the surge in companies supporting various causes as part of their marketing message, it should come as no surprise that some advocacy apps are sponsored by retailers or consumer products companies. One example is CauseWorld, sponsored by Kraft and Citigroup, which allows consumers to give to charities just by visiting certain retailers. Users of the app can earn "Karma Points" that can be used to make donations to various charities. 

“The biggest obstacle between a person wanting to live a conscience life is knowledge, but when we make it easy for them, people tend to do what’s right,” said McAulisse. "The more available we make information about conscience decisions and shopping the more people will use it."

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