There seems to be a growing trend these days towards what I will call “socially beneficial consumerism” - that is, the idea that if we as consumers can only *somehow* consume in the right way, then we will solve problems of hunger, lack of clothing, disease, and poverty around the world. At heart the issue here is that we like buying things for ourselves and not giving our money away to others, even though we know we should, and there are some companies out there that are making it easy to appease our guilty consciences while still allowing us to buy fancy stuff for ourselves. This is different from supporting fair trade economics and the like; when you partake in this new movement and buy from a company that claims to donate some of their profits to the less fortunate, the company making the product is still turning a profit. Fair trade, simplified, is a system in which when you buy fair trade coffee (for instance), the farmer who grew the coffee - and not the international corporate middleman - is getting most of the money. Even though charities still will get money from socially beneficial consumerism, it is less money then they would have gotten if you had given them all of your money instead of buying something for yourself. Let’s examine a few of these new upstart efforts.
TOMS Shoes is a “conscientious consumer” enabler that sells shoes (well, slippers, really) to fund its drive to provide shoes to impoverished kids all around the globe. Every pair sold allows a poor child to have shoes. “One for One,” their website proclaims. This solution appears, at first, a shoe-in, and I am all for helping poor children, until you look at the cost of the shoes that TOMS sells - $44-$68 a pair. For slippers! Surely these don’t cost upwards of $30 to make and market. After all, half the shoes produced are not even for the consumer market. I thought the appeal of these simple, durable shoes is that they are cheap to produce and distribute to the poor. Right? TOMS is probably netting a nice profit on every pair.
This reduces the shoes to a status symbol for the first-world wearer. “Look at how generous my shoes say I am,” is the underlying message to all the folks walking by you on the paved streets. But this is not true altruism. After all, any cost-conscious altruistic citizen would satisfy their need for shoes for the lowest cost possible and then donate the remainder to charity. Sure, they don’t get the status symbol that they can flaunt in public, but more of their hard-earned money actually goes to, you know, worthy causes that aim to make a difference in the world.
If $70 for shoes isn’t enough money to make someone feel self-righteouss, then they can always move on to bigger and better status symbols, like the OLPC. The One Laptop Per Child Project, through their Give 1 Get 1 (G1G1) program, aims to put a laptop in the hands of third-world children - for educational purposes of course. Technology for everyone! Now of course I am skeptical about the very nature of this project, but that is not the focus of this article. My beef here is that you pay $400, $200 for each laptop, just to receive a laptop that you most likely don’t need. What use could you have for a plastic, green, kid-size, Linux-based laptop? Chances are you’ll end up giving it to your kid so that they can have some solidarity with those less fortunate, while you can still look good at dinner parties. Never mind how far $400 could have gone at your local homeless shelter to help out the poor in your community; your kid has a cool gadget that shows how much you care about others.
There seems to be two main camps of opposition to this trend. One one hand you have groups who directly speak out against it, like the Adbusters magazine and website. On the other hand you have organizations like (Product) Red who try to incorporate altruism into the mainstream consumer culture. I think that both paths are misguided.
Adbusters magazine, the outspoken source for all things anti-consumerist, offers hemp shoes made without sweatshop labor, branded only with a black circle. The circle, an anti-corporate scowl of sorts, aims to demote the brand logo as a source of self-worth. The price for a pair? A lofty $75-$99. Congratulations, Adbusters - you offer unbranded merchandise at brand-name prices. The anti-consumer will no doubt choose a cheaper option and shop elsewhere. And those people who usually buy $200+ shoes who you might try and entice with lower prices? They have never heard of your magazine.
The rich, though, may have heard of (Product) Red. This brand, an affiliation with a charity, is on everything from credit cards to clothes to iPods and promises that a percentage of the profits for each branded item sold will be given to various social causes. Apparently the hip thing to do these days is to take a regular iPod, paint it (Red), and sell it so that consumers can claim that they are actually donating money to charity. It is a bold initiative to change the world through the frivolous expenditure of cash on personal luxury items. Since (Red) works on streamlining the consumer’s desire with social justice and altruism, a large part of their campaign is focused on advertising. After all, if they can’t tout the benefits of paying for red paint, people will always buy what’s cheapest or most attractive. More money gone to waste on advertising that could have been put up to help those less fortunate.
“Desire and virtue. Together at last,” their website claims. I wasn’t aware that these were irreconcilable qualities up until now, but since (Red) has pointed it out, let’s think about it. Why is it that we brand desire as ‘evil’ and those who lust after things as lacking virtue? I associate rampant desire with lacking self-discipline, and come to the conclusion that a large part of what we call ‘being virtuous’ is really just being disciplined. (Red) thinks that they have solved a paradox, allowing desire and virtue, in this case more akin to altruism, to go hand in hand. You can now spend frivolously, confident that as long as you are buying (Red), your dollars are working overtime to propel you into sainthood.
I don’t think I can summon the language to appropriately describe how misguided and false this idea is.
When you are rewarded for being altruistic, you cannot truly be being altruistic. Selfless giving, the kind that is motivated by morals or ethics, does not ask for anything in return. Flaunting TOMS shoes or an OLPC so that others will marvel at your generous spirit nullifies the altruistic ideal. Altruism is giving while expecting nothing in return. Altruism decries selfishness, and this is what the companies want you to forget. I’m all for supporting the poor, but I’m completely against the idea that you can put your self-interest on par with your concern for the poor and say that you are being altruistic, which is what these companies seem to be promoting.
Should you support the poor and less fortunate? Absolutely. Should you provide for yourself? Certainly. Should you take advantage of opportunities that allow you to integrate those interests? Yes, but do so with caution and with no premonition that what you are doing is pure altruism. If you are going to provide for yourself, do so. If you are going do help the less fortunate, do so. But do not spend money on “conscientious consumer” status symbols that excuse frivolous spending. Jesus Christ probably said it best in Matthew 6 when he said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Consuming correctly won’t make the world better; giving, giving generously, and remembering to put others’ interests above you own will.