There are plenty of value-based consumer trends out there: People buy local, buy sustainable, and buy organic.
The local tech startup Goods Unite Us is hoping that buying politically is what comes next.
Sign on to either the Goods Unite Us website, or its iPhone app, and users can type in a brand or company. The app then returns information on that brand’s political spending patterns, based on publicly available Federal Election Commission disclosures.
It’s a tool that provides transparency to citizens, said co-founder and CEO Abigail Wuest, in an era when corporations are able to pour massive amounts of money into electoral politics.
“If corporations have protected speech, we want to know what they’re saying,” said Wuest.
Use the tool to search for Pepsi Co, for example, and you'll get a scorecard. The multinational corporation turns out to be a big political spender, with 55 percent of spending going toward Republican candidates or causes.
American Girl, the doll brand headquartered in Middleton, leans more Republican, with “medium levels” of spending overall.
Epic Systems, the massive Verona-based health care technology corporation, spends 87% of its contributions on Democrats, but keeps its expenditures low.
The tool also assigns a grade from negative 100 to positive 100 to each brand as well. Positive 100 means that a corporation’s habits indicate that it’s “likely that purchases from the company or brand will lead to meaningful campaign finance reform.” Negative 100, not so much.
American Girl and Pepsi both have scores in the negative 30s. Epic Systems racks up a positive 70.
Users have the option to tweet to the companies directly from the iPhone app to let them know about their score. There’s also a portal that allows users to directly shop any given brand online, after they’ve viewed their score.
The software generates the score using an algorithm that factors in levels of political spending, along with the specific causes and candidates corporations contribute to.
“If a party is progressive, it scores higher,” explained Amy Jo Miller, the COO of Goods Unite Us. “Progressives tend to not favor corporate money in politics.”
Taken altogether, the data and tools provided speak to the social mission of Goods Unite Us, itself a for-profit company. It’s not just interested in providing transparency; it also wants corporate money out of politics, period.
“If more people start shopping politically, if they know where their money is going...eventually the corporations that are giving their money to (political action committees) would maybe not necessarily stop, but would think twice,” said Miller.
While the idea is to encourage users to shop brands based on their potential impact on campaign finance reform, Wuest acknowledged people could also use the app to figure out partisan affiliations of any given company, and shop based exclusively on that.
“I don’t think that’s completely against the spirit of the company,” she said.
“I see it very generally as a way to help test the integrity of the democratic process a little bit,” she added. “It’s a way to start adapting to life with corporate money in politics.”
While corporate political spending is rampant, both Wuest and Miller indicated that using the app is not entirely a disheartening experience.
“There have been a lot of good actors,” said Wuest. “Some companies are really minimal contributors.”
A&W Restaurants is one example of a brand that scores a perfect 100, noted Miller. Others include LensCrafters, Crocs, Adidas and Porsche.
Uline, a shipping products company, is the sole brand to score a negative 100.
Wuest said Goods Unite Us was born in the wake of the 2016 general election, when levels of political spending hit all-time highs: The pricetag for the season was nearly $6.5 billion. About $1.5 billion of that comprised outside spending, primarily from super PACs — committees that don’t spend directly on candidates, but that are capable of raising and spending unlimited amounts of money. Such committees grew to prominence after the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC that ended restrictions on corporate electoral spending.
For Wuest and Potts, the election drove home the degree to which the U.S. was solidly in a post-Citizens United era.
“We were like, ‘Oh man, we’re going to be in this for a while,’” she said.
Wuest describes herself as a politically engaged person — she used to serve as a Dane County supervisor. So it made sense that she decided to do something about it.
Initially, the idea was to simply make a website with a searchable database, and leave it at that. However, Wuest said it became clear that they could do more than that: Given more resources, the tool could become more powerful, with a more streamlined interface and more robust data to pull from.
So now, Wuest, Potts and Miller — a serial entrepreneur who joined the team soon after its founding — are figuring out how to grow Goods Unite Us as a tech company. The team is remotely participating in a seed-stage incubator in San Francisco, and is considering taking on investors.
“Unlike a nonprofit, if we can get investment, we can do a lot more,” said West.
Wuest and Miller said that it’s an example of how for-profit companies can also strive to do good. Wuest said she plans on Goods Unite Us becoming a B Corporation — a certification reserved for companies that balance a profit-making mission with a mission for social good.