It seems as though philanthropy and consumerism are becoming ever more indistinguishable. Now, you can accumulate donations for a cause while browsing the web using GoodSearch.com or you can buy a pair of shoes from TOMS and know that because of your purchase, a pair of shoes will be donated to a needy child in a disadvantaged country. You can order textbooks from Better World Books, which raises money for literacy and education as well as donating to overseas literacy programs. You can even support the Ann Arbor Public Schools by shopping at the PTO thrift shop.
Especially in the current economic climate, we see it as our duty as citizens to buy more and support the economy. The solution seems clear: If people buy more, then there will be more jobs available, more tax money going to the government and more satisfaction all around. This may not be as beneficial as it seems, however. Even if the corporations from which you buy your shoes and books are donating things to people in need, it’s important not to let that turn into a red herring, taking attention away from the various problems with over-consumption.
While it is undoubtedly good for companies to be aware of their responsibility to the greater community (on whatever scale they may conceive of), philanthropy and consumerism must remain discernable from each other — confusing the two is detrimental to both. The goal of business is normally to make a profit, whereas the goal of philanthropy is to promote the welfare of others. The two are not congruent. Nevertheless, businesses have found ways to practice philanthropy in ways that, through improving their image, actually promote profit.
The problem with this spurs from placing primary attention on the consumerist aspects of philanthropic projects, rather than on their goals and achievements. Don’t get me wrong, I love the bake sales in Angell Hall. But when you’re being charitable it’s important to make sure that the ways in which you go about it don’t make people ignorant of the sources they’re supporting.
For example, the TOMS shoes website includes extensive information about where, how, and why they give shoes to needy children around the world. What is not mentioned on the site is where, how and by whom the shoes are made. They sell a line of vegan shoes, but the materials going into their other shoes may come from cows that were raised in factory farms and spent their lives being overfed in confined spaces, thus adding methane to the atmosphere and contributing to global climate change. Furthermore, carting loads of shoes overseas causes additional emissions from planes, and distributing free shoes may put local industries in developing economies out of business. Of course, this is not an overall condemnation of TOMS; it’s simply a suggestion to look beyond the donations a business makes.
My point is not to criticize TOMS shoes or any other industry that strives to give back as well as gain. But it is clear that we should not let philanthropy put a blinder over our eyes, so that we cease to examine these businesses as critically as we would any other. Furthermore, for student organizations to promote similar business behavior is also fine, as long as the students that participate in them recognize that what they are doing is providing free advertising, not community service or organizing or fundraising. I say this as a member of SOLE (Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality), which, for about a year, has been promoting Alta Gracia, the union-made University apparel supplier. Clearly, if people are looking for a pair of shoes or a University hoodie, then they are not doing anything wrong by buying from the union-made or philanthropic sources rather than the alternatives. It’s just not OK for consumerism to become the new charity, and for people to assume that by buying something they are having a net positive impact on the world.
Actually figuring out the net impact of shopping in philanthropic stores is tricky, but it is important to look at more than just charity when judging an industry’s imact. If the sources of the goods are unsustainable — either socially, through labor standards or environmentally — then aid to charity is most likely not worth the damage that those donations may cause. If we want to actually put our money where our ideologies are, then it’s important to see beyond corporate charity.
Anna can be reached at email@example.com.