Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Sign? Can Online Petitions Create Change?

Many people deride online petitions as ineffective "Slacktivism" or worse since they might deter someone from taking effective action by giving the false sense that the signer has made an impact.  I disagree.   

Petitions can be a critical channel of communication that can build awareness for many issues.  They challenge individuals to decide whether or not to take a stand, and provide an easy way for people to publicize their opinions and recruit others to lend their support.  Facebook can be an extraordinary medium to amplify this process because it can leverage an individual’s personal connections to help a campaign go viral and reach people who would otherwise never be touched. How else will my Oklahoma high school buddies have a chance to consider same-sex civil rights?

At the same time, a petition like the Food Declaration can be an extremely effective way to expand your network of supporters who can help apply pressure on legislators and provide financial contributions. And, in my experience, those who sign up online are much more likely to respond to online requests for action than connections made via face-to-face canvassing.

But some petitions are more effective than others.  Ideally they demand something that has a good chance of actually being achieved.  For example, here's a petition campaign I drafted in response to a request to improve on an existing petition on

First, to set the context, here's my wording of the text that introduces the issue on the campaign page:

Tell Trader Joe’s: Don’t Dump Good Food

Every year in America we throw out 96 billion pounds of food, much of it still good to eat.  Grocery stores are dumping food every day that could feed hungry people.

This is where we start to reverse this unacceptable waste of food.  Trader Joe’s prides itself as “giving back to our local communities.” But the movie “Dive!” shows huge amounts of good food discarded in their dumpsters.

Send a message to the grocery stores that you care about the environment and hungry people. Sign this petition to tell Trader Joe’s to act on its principles and cut its food waste in half.

The original campaign asks: "Please initiate a Zero Food Waste corporate-wide policy!"   I Googled "zero food waste policy" and couldn't find a definition for it.  It sounded like a reference to a certification program, but I don't think one exists.  Hopefully it will some day.  In the mean time, Trader Joe's management hasn't responded to the petition even though it has 78,000 signatures.

However, I doubt they ever will, since it asks for "zero waste" which is impossible.  But what if we asked for something that they just might agree to?  In my work at Roots of Change, I learned that the first step in reducing environmental impact is just to measure it.  So my "demand" would be for Trader Joe's to measure food waste and to cut it in half over the course of three years.   Not exactly a slogan that would send people to the barricades, but one to which I can imagine the management responding.  Here's the full letter I drafted:
Dear Mr. Bane,

Trader Joe’s has a reputation for being environmentally friendly and supporting local communities.  I’m writing to ask you to build on this reputation by acting to help solve an urgent problem: the estimated 96 billion pounds of food that are thrown away in the U.S each year.  Reducing this waste would prevent significant damage to the environment and could provide nutrition for millions of hard-pressed citizens.

This statement from Trader Joe’s website is a clear sign of your concern: “We continuously strive to improve our processes in our efforts to reduce food waste and provide hunger relief.”  I ask that you establish your reputation as the most socially conscious grocery chain by making this commitment: “to measure the amount of food that Trader Joe’s throws out annually and reduce it by 50% over three years.”

This issue is so important to me that if you’ll take this critical step, I’ll pledge to help publicize your good work and urge my friends to support you.

I look forward to learning about your response through  With your cooperation, we can work together to maintain a healthier planet and feed more people by reducing food waste.


In addition to the specific demand, the overall tone is changed to one of collaboration to solve the problem. And it offers a carrot if they are willing to agree.

The next draft is the email alert sent to supporters to trigger signatures.
Even though the petition itself sets a collaborative tone, the letter to supporters is more urgent and dramatic.  Note that it also clarifies where this particular action fits into the overall effort to reduce grocery store waste.  I especially like the  subject line - designed to maximize the open rate.

Subject Line – Stop Trashy Behavior at Trader Joe’s

Dear ________,

Every year in America we throw out 96 billion pounds of food -- much of it is still OK to eat.  Meanwhile, people across the country are going to bed hungry.  This is unacceptable. 

Join the voices that say that tossing out good food is terrible, and take the first step to reverse course. Call on Trader Joe’s to drastically reduce its waste—specifically, to measure the amount of food it throws away each year and cut it in half.

This petition was started by dumpster-diving Jeremy Seifert.  In his movie “Dive!” Jeremy shows Trader Joe’s dumpsters full of food—a dozen eggs thrown away because one is cracked, a crate of bananas tossed because of a few brown spots, intact packages of fresh spinach stacked in the trash—and says, “it’s about more than not wasting food. It’s about making sure everyone has enough to eat.”

This campaign is completely winnableJeremy selected Trader Joe’s because the management is sensitive to its reputation for being socially conscious.  They will act when they understand the depth of consumers’ concerns. 

And Trader Joe’s is just the first step. Once it sets a standard for waste reduction, will pressure other grocery chains to publicly meet or exceed those standards. That way we can destroy the assumption that it’s OK to toss healthy food.  

Here’s your chance to cause real, measurable change with a simple action. But it can only work if people like you act, and if you ask your friends to join in. Be the spark that changes the world.

Thank you for taking action.

Even campaigns that ask for the moon can effectively communicate messages and gather support.  But whenever possible, as in this case, why not step it up and demand something that could actually happen?  That way the campaign gains credibility--and more support.   And it greatly increases the chance of a campaign victory.  By referencing that victory, we can undercut the "what difference does it make?" argument and set up even more credible, more powerful follow-up campaigns. 

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