Monday, November 30, 2009

consumer charity

This post deserves a bit of a “Sarah on her high horse” warning. Sometimes I say or write things not because I think I’ve got a particular issue figured out, but because I want to ask uncomfortable questions of myself and the world around me. With that in mind, then, one of the questions I’ve been asking recently is when the choices I/we make in the name of helping others are more about feeling good than actually doing good.

The advertisement sidebar on my Facebook page tells me that tomorrow Starbucks will be donating 5 cents of the cost of every drink to the (red) campaign. Money for people with AIDS in Africa – it’s a good thing, right?

Maybe. Leaving a discussion of the actual impacts of charity efforts like the (red) campaign aside for a moment, I wonder what they say about us as US consumers. To begin with, there’s the absurdity of using the donation of a few dollars or cents of the profits from a purchase to some worthy cause as an incentive to buy something. The obvious question here is – if you really wanted to help, why not donate the whole $15 cost of your t-shirt?

Okay, so maybe your t-shirt purchase isn’t so much about helping the poor, but if you’re going to buy the shirt anyway, isn’t it better to go for one that will support someone in need? Again, I want to say, “not so fast”. I wonder if by highlighting special opportunities to make particular ethical consumption choices, companies like Apple, Starbucks and the Gap aren’t distracting us from the fact that all our consumer choices have social, political and environmental ramifications in the developing world. Does a dollar or two given back to the communities in Lesotho where (red) t-shirts are made make up for the fact that what you pay for the jeans on the next rack is the same as what the woman who sews them in Cambodia makes in a month? Does a few cents donation from your latte do anything to address the environmental degradation of non-fair trade, non-organic coffee? Though it’s impossible to measure, does the good you do with the occasional contribution to consumer charity outweigh the negatives impact of the product you buy? Of all the non-charity items you get from those companies?

Perhaps my argument is not so much with campaigns like (red) themselves as it is with how the highlight the lack of a bigger conversation about the amount of stuff we buy, where it comes from, and how the earth and other people are treated to get them to us in the first place. At any rate, I don’t think hitting up Starbucks tomorrow will be my way of marking World AIDS day.

No comments:

Post a Comment