A couple weeks ago, I did something very out of character.
I saw this ad on YouTube for a company called 4ocean,
which has taken on the mission of cleaning up plastic pollution in oceans around the world.
"Now, we've become the world's largest ocean clean-up company, employing captains and crews
seven days a week to clean our oceans and coastlines."
Here's how they fund that mission.
"All of our clean-up efforts are funded entirely through the sale of our bracelet."
"The 4ocean bracelet is made from our ocean plastic and the recycled glass bottles that we collect."
Right after watching the video, I checked out their website and saw the bracelet costs $20
and the money will be used to clean one pound of trash from the oceans.
I thought, "Hey, I've got $20 sitting around,"
and I bought two of the bracelets right then and there—one for me and one for my wife.
Very unlike me to decide on a purchase that quickly, but I guess I felt inspired.
It was only a few minutes after clicking "Complete Order," though, that I started to have buyer's remorse.
As I checked out the company a bit further, I discovered (and this is no secret)
that 4ocean is a for-profit company, not a non-profit.
So, for-profit company? That means they're only in it for the money, right?
Well, not necessarily. There could actually be a legitimate reason for 4ocean to not be a non-profit.
In this article, Alex Schulze, one of the founders, says:
Now, he's slightly mischaracterizing how non-profits operate.
It is actually possible for a non-profit to have a business model and sell a product,
but he's right in the sense that a non-profit could not operate in the way 4ocean does,
because the law typically requires that anything a non-profit sells must be directly mission-related.
It can't just be some trinket.
So, for example, if 4ocean wanted to be a non-profit,
they could probably sell a book about the ocean plastic crisis
and then use revenue from sales of that book to fund actual cleanups.
However, if 4ocean were trying to fund its cleanups through sales of a t-shirt,
candy, or . . . a bracelet,
they would not be allowed to operate as a tax-exempt non-profit.
So, in a way, the path 4ocean has chose, being a for-profit company,
could actually be really smart for achieving their mission of cleaning the ocean.
If they went the non-profit route and tried to sell a book or a documentary film,
and supplement that with grants and donations,
revenue might not be very high.
With the bracelet, however, they appear to have achieved phenomenal sales,
which means they have way more revenue to invest back in their mission.
But here's where things get a bit shady.
In a non-profit, there is a high degree of accountability.
The organization must prove to the government every year that they are indeed using their money to invest in their mission,
and not just to line their own pockets.
In a for-profit company like 4ocean, the accountability is much, much less.
There's really nothing stopping these two guys from taking millions of dollars in profit and using it for whatever they please.
It seems the only organization holding 4ocean accountable is the Better Business Bureau,
which has given them an "A" rating,
but that "A" rating only indicates that 4ocean isn't deceiving its customers with false claims.
In a comment here, 4ocean says:
Okay, so that's great.
It means the answer to the question in the title of this video is "no."
The bracelet is not technically a scam.
It is made from recycled materials, and they do indeed pull a pound of trash for each bracelet sold.
But the remaining question is,
"How much of the $20 that customers give 4ocean is actually necessary to clean up one pound of trash?"
Well, first you've got the manufacturing costs of the bracelet itself, which I'm sure are negligible.
Next, you've got to provide equipment, office space, and salaries to the people running the company.
And I think they deserve decent salaries.
They shouldn't have to live in poverty to prove their devotion to the mission.
Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine that payroll for operations would have to be a huge expense.
Finally, you've got the labor cost of actually collecting the trash,
and there are some pretty serious questions to be asked here.
Now, some people have pointed to 4ocean's use of volunteers,
and claimed that 4ocean is fulfilling its one-pound pledge with unpaid labor.
4ocean, however, asserts that the trash collected at those volunteer events is not counted toward the pledge.
I believe them on that.
However, it appears that 4ocean's paid clean-up crews operate primarily in Haiti and Indonesia,
developing countries where labor is quite inexpensive.
So, I feel like it's reasonable to conclude that most of 4ocean's 4.7 million pounds of trash
has been collected at a labor cost that most Americans would find shockingly low.
And consider this, too:
Each year, somewhere between 14 and 18 billion pounds of trash flow into the ocean,
and that's why many places are positively covered in it.
With this much trash on the beach,
how much time and energy do you think 4ocean has to expend to collect one pound?
I mean, look at this right here. They must be getting a pound every 30 seconds.
And remember, 4ocean is charging $20 for each of those pounds.
They are literally raking it in.
Bascially, it comes down to this:
There are two possibilities of what 4ocean is at its heart.
One is that 4ocean's business is cleaning the ocean,
and the bracelet sales are just a clever way to support that.
The other possibility is that 4ocean's business . . .
is selling bracelets, and the ocean cleanup is just a clever way to support that.
All they have to do is maintain a credible appearance of cleaning the ocean,
fulfill their quite modest pledge of one pound of trash per 20-dollar bracelet,
and in comes the money.
At the moment, I can't say for sure which possibility is the reality,
but it sure seems like the second one is more likely.
Now, I doubt the owners of 4ocean will ever see this video,
but if they did, I would just want to say one thing:
"Prove me wrong."
Prove that your primary mission really is cleaning the ocean,
and not making a bunch of money for yourselves.
I actually wouldn't mind being proved wrong.
I already bough the bracelets, so you've got my money,
and I would like to hear that my $40 is really going to clean the ocean,
and not, like, $4 to the ocean and $36 to you guys.
And the way to prove me wrong, obviously, is to release financial records
showing how much you personally have profited from 4ocean.
I should emphasize to everyone,
I don't consider it shameful for them to be making anything above subsistence level.
I think the owners and staff of 4ocean deserve to make a decent living.
However, I think we would all agree there's a certain level of income at which it becomes obscene.
I mean, imagine if in their ads they said:
"Hey, we each made a couple million dollars last year."
"Pleeeease give us 20 more so we can clean the ocean."
Would you be convinced of their "mission" and their "movement" and buy the bracelet?
I know I wouldn't.
And so, the final point of this video is for other consumers, like me.
If you've got $20 sitting around, and you care about plastic pollution in the oceans,
you can probably find a more worthy cause to give your money to than 4ocean.
Now, that's the meat of what I wanted to say,
but if you're interested in sticking around, I've got a couple of pre-emptive rebuttals.
Some apologists (or paid shills) for 4ocean,
might try to show 4ocean's devotion to their cause
by pointing to the partnerships 4ocean has with non-profits.
Look, they've got people at the Orca Conservancy,
the Oceanic Preservation Society, the Save the Manatee Club, and Ocean Conservancy
all talking about how great 4ocean is and how proud they are to be working with them.
Yeah, sure, but you should probably take a look at the fine print at the ends of those videos.
So, that appears to be the extent of the "partnership": a one-time donation.
And a donation is good, of course, but it's important to keep it in perspective.
For a non-profit like Ocean Conservancy, $25,000 could be a significant amount of money,
while for 4ocean, it could be a mere drop in the ocean.
And the fact that the directors of these non-profits are praising 4ocean
is not convincing to me of 4ocean's purity of purpose,
because it's easy to imagine that these non-profit folks are receiving a substantial donation
and free publicity from a company which is indeed pulling some trash out of the oceans,
and so they think:
"Well, that's great for our cause and our organization,
so I'm not going to concern myself with whether these two guys are making great personal profit
by selling overpriced bracelets."
I don't think that's a cynical thing to imagine. It's just realistic.
Some people also might point to 4ocean's Ocean Plastic Recovery Vessel
as evidence of the enormous, selfless investments they've made in their mission.
Yeah, I'm not convinced there, either, for a few reasons.
One, who knows how much the ship cost?
It's a repurposed oil barge. It might have been fairly cheap,
particularly when compared to 4ocean's revenue.
If the ship cost two million dollars, but their revenue last year was 40 million,
then it's not really a huge investment.
Nor can you call it a selfless one.
Like all of 4ocean's equipment, the ship is branded out the wazoo,
so it's clearly intended to create brand awareness and generate publicity for the company,
which it has, like in this glowing news report.
"Ocean Plastic Recovery Vessel 1 got christened last night,
I was honored to be there in Fort Lauderdale,
and it's now ready to extricate millions of tons of plastic from the ocean worldwide."
And now, the biggest question of all about the ship:
The news report says the ship is ready to collect "millions of TONS of plastic,"
and here, 4ocean itself says this:
"That's why we're launching the Ocean Plastic Recovery campaign.
It will end 90% of the world's ocean plastic pollution forever."
So, yeah, we're talking about millions, if not tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic.
The ship was launched in November of 2018,
and yet, at the moment, 4ocean's pledge of one pound of trash per twenty-dollar bracelet hasn't been updated.
You would think by now they would have said something like:
"Hey, guys! We've got this great new, super-efficient technique for collecting the plastic,
so now, for each twenty-dollar bracelet, we're going to collect 100 pounds of plastic!"
I'm not expecting an announcement like that anytime soon.
Also really suspicious is that the entire internet seems to have no photos or video
of the Ocean Plastic Recovery Vessel in action.
There's some video of the ship out at sea,
but no video of it actually collecting garbage.
Even stranger, if you search for "4ocean 'ocean plastic recovery'"—
like, to see if their site has any updates on the project—
you'll find this result:
"Anchored in high-impact river mouths, blah blah blah, the OPR vessel, blah blah blah . . ."
And when you click on the link, you get a 404 error.
It seems like the project has been abandoned,
and all that's left online are a few promotional videos from its launch.
Maybe they had to abandon it because of some technical problem.
Or, maybeeeee . . .
there's a more cynical conclusion you could draw here, and I'll let you do that for yourself.
No matter what, the ship does not convince me that 4ocean is making enormous and revolutionary investments
in the ocean cleanup effort.
The only thing that's going to convince me I'm not a sucker for buying these bracelets
is if these two surfer dudes reveal how much they personally have profited from their business.