The Birth of the “Chicken Offset”

The battle over gay rights and the Southern fast food chain Chick-fil-A has dominated the news in the last couple of weeks. 

Kiss-ins, boycotts, and counterprotests have all ensued. But maybe the most clever response to the anti-gay marriage comments is the “chicken offset,” the brainchild of  a lawyer, political operative, and all-around character named Ted Frank (disclosure: one of us – Sprigman – went to law school with Ted).

These build on the existing idea of “carbon offsets,” which started out as a way to bring market flexibility to CO2 emissions caps. If a polluter exceeds a cap, it can purchase an offset. The money that the polluter pays for the offsets supports projects that reduce CO2 emissions – say, the construction of a wind farm. The new, green projects “offset” the bad emissions. 

Today, firms like Brighter Planet offer offsets that consumers can voluntarily purchase to balance out the carbon output of their flying, their houses, their weddings, and even their pets (did you know that the average housecat has a carbon pawprint of over 0.5 ton – mostly from production and transport of cat food?).

Ted’s stroke of inspiration was to tweak the concept of the offset and apply it to chicken sandwiches.  As he explains on his new website, chickenoffsets.com, he loves Chick-fil-A sandwiches, but doesn’t want his love to come at the expense of his gay friends.  And so every time you give in to that chicken sandwich jones, Ted will sell you an offset for $1.  He promises that he’ll give at least 90% of that dollar to pro-gay rights groups. Which is much more than anti-gay groups are going to make on your lunch at Chick-fil-A. And you get a certificate to prove to anyone who spies you at a Chick-fil-A that you’ve already taken steps to undo any damage. 

 The chicken offset is a great and funny idea.  And, quickly,  another Chick-fil-A offset competitor has appeared. Ted’s site went live last Saturday. By Monday morning, chickfilaconfessional.com was up.  Chickfilaconfessional adds a few neat twists to Ted’s concept.  You tell the website exactly what you had to eat at Chick-fil-A.  Based on your input, it calculates an appropriate penance and directs you to pro-gay rights organizations who will be happy to accept your donation.

When we asked Ted if he was annoyed by his new competitor, he waved off the question.  He’s not even sure they copied him – the idea, he said, was “in the air.”  Soon after the Chick-fil-A controversy broke, he remembers someone making a joke about “chicken offsets” on Twitter. 

We don’t know for sure whether chickfilaconfessional.com copied  chickenoffsets.com. It may be that both arrived at the same idea independently, or perhaps that both were inspired by the same Twitter joke. But like a lot of new products and services, the chicken offset competition shows how essential tweaking is to the innovative process.

The chicken offset tweaks the personal carbon offset. The personal carbon offset, in turn, tweaks the offset systems built into climate change regulations like those operating now in Europe. And the EU’s offset program tweaks the Environmental Protection Agency’s pioneering “cap and trade” acid rain program in the Clean Air Act of 1990. And that in turn drew on academic work going back to economist Ronald Coase’s famous 1960 article, The Problem of Social Cost.

Is there nothing new on the sun? No. Until a couple of weeks ago, there was no chicken offset. But like a lot of terrific ideas, the chicken offset didn’t come out of nowhere. Inventing it required some building blocks. And this kind of incremental innovation—refining, rejiggering, and rethinking existing ideas—requires the freedom to copy. That is one reason we think copying is such an important part of the creative process.

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  1. cjc says:

    There Is No Great Stagnation.

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  2. Chris says:

    This is a great idea, if you are morally & logically OK with the concept of offsets.

    The problem is that this is too narrow – it applies to Chick-fil-A only, and that business is not unique despite being the news story du jour. I wonder if there are similar sites for mosque attendance or (for example) the local hardware store? Ideally those would be linked from a primary website where you can look up the LGBT viewpoints for any business, so that you can either punish them by withholding your spending, or offset your purchases..

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  3. Ken Arromdee says:

    I can’t believe people are reacting to this seriously.

    Carbon offsets, whether good or bad, are at least a coherent concept, because it is not possible for you to just pay some money and reduce the carbon usage of the world by some amount, without an infrastructure to combine payments, negotiate with companies that reduce carbon, etc. On the other hand, there’s nothing keeping you from donating $1 to a gay rights group yourself without working through any intermediaries.

    All that “chicken offsets” actually accomplish is demonstrate that people don’t mean what they say. It would be easy to calculate how many cents of each chicken sandwich goes towards anti-gay activities and pay a corresponding amount to a pro-gay group yourself. People don’t do that because they don’t seriously think that the effect of buying the chicken sandwich is enough to matter. Complaining about it is just a way to feel self-righteous.

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  4. Nosybear says:

    In Medieval times they were called indulgences and the Church sold them. It’s not a new idea, and the deed is still a sin, you just telegraph your sin and pay for it to go away before committing it.

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  5. Nathan says:

    Indulgences?

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  6. TexCIS says:

    Where can I buy offsets to support Free Speech? Since the governments in Boston and Chicago want to ban the restaurant because of the speech of the son of the founder, it’s only a matter of time until no Christian can own or operate a store and speak their beliefs. Perhaps we should wear stars on our sleeves, or be tattooed with a number and herded into a ghetto. Then the offending chicken restaurants could only cater to the outcasts.

    However, the mayor of Chicago loves the anti-semitic, anti-gay Luis Farrakhan. What is the Muslim stance on gay rights? What is their stance on women’s rights?

    When you get rid of the Christians, get ready for Sharia.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 30 Thumb down 34
    • Fred says:

      You correctly point out the Left’s inconsistency on the Chick-fil-A issue. They attack free speech that is offensive to them; but the only speech that needs to be protected is that which offensive. Meanwhile they are mute in attacking perhaps the largest anti-gay bloc in the U.S. – Islam. There may be a strong anti-gay contingent within the Christian church, but there is wide division about acceptance/tolerance vs opposition. This division does not exist widely in Islam, at least publicly (in my awareness).

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      • Alex Blaze says:

        Islam is not “the largest anti-gay bloc in the U.S.” – that’s just silly. Christians make up over 3/4 of the country, Muslims are only 0.6%. Even if only 1/2 of Christians are homophobic, that’s still a whole lot more than the number of Muslims, even if we assume that 100% of Muslims are homophobic (which isn’t at all true, at least from my experience).

        I know math is hard, but it’s not that hard.

        Also, most of the left has condemned those mayors who want to exclude Chick-fil-a, and lots of those mayors have walked back their comments. I know you don’t like the left, but this is a silly point of attack.

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    • Marc says:

      Actually, both of you have completely missed the point. Or skewed it on purpose. Although on a personal level I’m disgusted by Dan Cathy’s remarks about same sex marriage, nobody is saying he isn’t entitled to them. The problem is that he isn’t content with feeling that way himself, and so he uses profits from his business to donate to organizations that suppress the rights of others. And that’s what people have the beef with. Every American should be bothered by that.

      I’ll admit that I have no religious affiliation of my own, but if I did, I’d be content to follow it’s teachings and guidelines in my own day to day life, so long as I’m not affecting or hurting others. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians (and folks of other religions) NEED the country, or others to feel and live the way they want. That’s whats wrong with this.

      Also, to clarify, the mayors of Boston and Chicago (and San Francisco for that matter) aren’t saying they’re’ going to ban Chick-fil-A from opening. They’re using their right to free speech to express disappointment in the companies stance on the issue, and urging them not to open in their area. Even if they actually tried to legally stop that from happening, the courts would intervene, and as much as I hate Chick-fil-A, I’d be right there defending them.

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      • Fred says:

        Very good point; I guess it depends on whether you regard financial contributions as a form of speech or not, and also whether corporations are groups of people with that same collective right. Personally I can see both perspectives and their abuses.

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      • jblog says:

        “Although on a personal level I’m disgusted by Dan Cathy’s remarks about same sex marriage, nobody is saying he isn’t entitled to them.”

        Actually that’s precisely what some people are doing — in the case of San Francisco and Chicago officials, they went beyond saying they disagree with Dan Cathy and don’t want him doing business in their cities to actually threatening to take steps to PREVENT him from opening stores in their locales. That crosses the line.

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  7. lee says:

    a little biased reporting, huh? i’d love to point out that chickfilaconfessional.com launched last friday on national same sex kiss day.

    with such a culturally relevant topic keeping it’s place at the top of all of our news feeds, it seems only natural that many smart, creative people would imagine ways to be a part of the conversation.

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  8. Andreas Moser says:

    I never thought we had any moral right to eat chicken anyway: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/bird-flu-is-not-that-bad/

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