Altered image from: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Consumer-targeted-XSmall.jpg author: Христина12

The Problem With Consumer-Driven Charity: From Apple to (RED) to Conscious Step

Author: Luiza Cavalcante (Leftist)

As consumers become more in tune with the environmental and societal ramifications of their purchases from unsustainable industries, a trend of consumer driven charity is on the rise. 

It happens at the checkout counter when you’re asked to round up your total to end childhood cancer or when a company claims that a portion of the proceeds of a certain product’s purchase will be donated. It’s a symbiotic relationship between for-profit and not-for-profit entities, and it might just lead to the end of charitable giving as we know it. 

It’s no secret why corporations would latch onto consumers’ desire to do good as a profit ploy. Prevailing theories on why people give suggest not a selfless desire to aid the less fortunate but instead the positive feeling one gets about themselves when giving: dubbed “warm glow effect.” The opposite of which, when weaponized by a corporation against a consumer, is for example the momentary feeling of guilt a customer feels when refusing to “round up” their total for an obscure yet heartwrenching cause. 

By giving via corporations, consumers inadvertently advance corporations’ stake on global challenges under the guise of humanitarianism. Take, for instance, the work of the organization RED, which is helping to lead corporations in fighting HIV/AIDS. The company partners with businesses including Apple and Nike (whose motto for the campaign was simple in it’s blatant tie between consumerism and charity “Lace Up. Save lives”) to create RED branded products whose portion of profit will be donated. RED is a perfect example of “cause branding”, a campaign that profits off disease by using it as a marketing vehicle. Writing for the Stanford Social Initiative Review, Mark Rosenman stated that it was an “example of the corporate world aligning its operations with its central purpose of increasing shareholder profit, except this time it is being cloaked in the patina of philanthropy.”

Consider also National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every October an astonishing number of pink products are available for purchase from the nation’s largest realtors. Even yogurt companies get on board: from 1998 to 2016, Yoplait donated 10 cents to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation for every pink yogurt lid a consumer mailed back to them. The campaign is usually met with positive media attention, yet in order for a customer to raise a meager $36 dollars for the cause, they’d have to eat 3 yogurts a day for the entirety of the four-month campaign, and in doing so they’d raise $200 for Yoplait itself (who for years sold pink lidded yogurts that contained rBGH, a hormone linked to increased risk of breast cancer, as noted by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners). 

While buying a RED version of the latest iPhone or consuming potentially carcinogen-packed amounts of Yoplait yogurt may bring some awareness to pressing issues, they do so through encouraging inherently problematic kinds of consumerism.

Vagueness about the allocation and amount of donated money is also a significant worry about consumer-driven charitable giving. Take Conscious Step, a fairtrade sock manufacturer that supports everything from “LGBTQ lives” to “building homes” through purchases of cause-specific socks. A browse through the company’s 2019 Impact Report readily available on their website certifies their multitudinous donations to a variety of charities, however, the portion of each purchase that is donated is not listed on Conscious Step’s website. Only when asked for comment did the Conscious Step team clarify that $1 is donated for every sock pair sold. Conscious Step’s upbeat rhythm is undermined by the fact that it operates as a vague third party between a giver and their donation. It is part of a larger problem: the turning tide of consumer-driven giving. Someone who donates through Conscious Step is after all, primarily a customer, empowered to purchase a $15 pair of socks through catchy slogans and images of people in the global south emphasizing the supposed impact of their purchase for causes they care about.

Even with all the faults of consumer driven charitable giving, corporations still maintain a  monopoly on how the majority of Americans give. The top 5 largest charities in the US  (United Way Worldwide, Feeding America, Direct Relief, Salvation Army, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) all have donation minimums (ranging from $5-$10), making direct giving inaccessible to people who can only afford to give through the less costly initiatives that corporations like Amazon and Walmart built straight into their consumer experience. It’s an endless cycle. Corporations set up simple donation infrastructure (like AmazonSmile or Chipotle’s round-up program) and receive large sums for a cause through thousands of people giving small amounts of money. Then, the corporation donates in a publicized lump sum and writes off the amount on their taxes, garnering support for its generosity. Finally, consumers flock to companies with a documented charitable giving history and increase its support base. The cycle begins again.

The solution is a simple one that can be broken down in a few ways: donate directly. First, avoid donating via corporations altogether. Second, research charities that have been thoroughly vetted for effectiveness through free services such as GiveWell and CharityWatch, while steering clear of sites that rely on user reviews for their charity ratings. If you’d like to get granular about it, compare the utility of your donation to charities you’re interested in giving to. For instance, while it may be compelling to donate $50 to facility maintenance at ASPCA, the same $50 could provide emergency food to save a child from starvation. 

If paying minimum donation fees isn’t within your means at a certain time it’s possible to gather friends or family and donate together or to donate directly to a small, local charity that accepts donations in person. 

 

*Altered image from: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Consumer-targeted-XSmall.jpg, author: Христина12

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