Drink a latte from Starbucks to help end HIV / AIDS, run a 5K to support a charity, or sport a tote bag to aid natural disaster relief efforts. Initiatives that let you combine your purchases with a little social change are everywhere these days. You might look at these opportunities–and all the people eagerly telling you about their participation in them on social media–and think that our society appears to be evolving into something more empathetic and ethically-minded, finally confronting tough social issues and offering everyone a chance to help.
But is that really what’s happening?
If you cast a critical lens on these initiatives by considering them in a wider context–if you take a look that lasts longer than scrolling past a picture of latte–something a lot more insidious reveals itself. The variety of initiatives that offer opportunities to affect everything from water access to women’s empowerment is impressive, but they all have one thing in common: they’re flashy but flat efforts that use consumption as the vehicle for participation, and are designed more to create social capital for consumers than to make a positive, global impact.
The now-ubiquitous buy-to-give efforts appear on the surface to be socially-conscious initiatives that work toward a better world, a perception that stems from the notion that surely there’s nothing wrong with buying something that supports a good cause. If you’re going to buy a watch, why not buy 1:Face’s Environment Watch that gives someone a stove in the process? To be clear, conscious consumerism isn’t the problem–all production should be fair trade and ethical. We should all use our purchasing power wisely and avoid buying unsustainable objects that support tyrannical production systems. But there is a vast difference between conscious consumerism and actively fostering social change–and confusing them is dangerous.
The “X for good” phenomenon is a trend. A trend should never be confused with a movement. Trends are fashions, fleeting in nature and always soon to be replaced. A movement is a group of people working together to advance a set of shared ideas. Working together–not buying together–to create transformative change. And that transformative change necessitates bigger picture thinking, altering the way systems distribute power, and focusing on outcomes like increasing self-sufficiency and access to resources. When you simply provide an item, there is a provider and a receiver, a have and a have not–the antithesis of equality.
Social innovators who are catalyzing true transformative social change work to shift the entire paradigm of inequity by altering the systems that force people into lives without, rather than just addressing the symptoms produced by those bad systems. For example, instead of simply providing people with clothing, organizations like the Jubilee House Community in Nicaragua co-build cooperatives with communities, empowering populations by creating a system that allows them to produce and sell each element of a piece of clothing across its production value chain. This is the critical and fundamental difference between providing resources and facilitating access, between creating dependence and fostering empowerment, between perpetuating broken systems and revolutionizing them.
Purchasing is a band-aid, not a solution, in addressing critical inequity issues.
The popular and pervasive idea underlying buy-to-give efforts is that, with a simple purchase,we are actively participating in creating social change and making the world a better and more equitable place. But where is that change? Where is the effect, the direct link between our actions and outcomes? The link is tenuous and the effects are underreported because they rarely exist, and if they do, they’re not having the impact they claim to have. In reality, companies engaging in buy-to-give efforts are in the business of selling ego boosts disguised as social change, popularized by our ability to craft the appearance of an altruistic persona by placing Toms shoes on our feet, artisanal jewelry made from disenfranchised women around our necks, and carefully curated images on our social media accounts.
Because of this, companies like Toms fare well–so well, in fact, that CEO Blake Mycoskie is rolling in a net worth in the hundreds of millions–while organizations like Kiva, which seek to create sustainable empowerment rather than simply dish out Western-determined items, dwindle in popularity and funding. The critical difference between companies like Kiva and Toms is that one offers its customers tangible evidence of their participation in social change via products that can be worn and photographed, often in exchange for something as petty as a like or a right-swipe, and the other does not. When our only connection to social change is a status item, we have to ask ourselves: who is this effort really about?
Maybe they aren’t about helping those in need at all. Rather, they’re about feeling good about ourselves and convincing ourselves that we’re not a part of the problem, that we’re somehow outside the global systems that are causing the issues our buying was meant to solve.
In our quest for self satisfaction, we’re exploiting the very people we aim to serve, chaining the powerless to the whims of the wealthy West. Because these change strategies are reliant on the global elite’s interest in socially conscious consumption, they’re inherently unsustainable. What happens when the interest in poverty-alleviating-pants and AIDS-fighting-shoes fades and the goods stop flowing?
Improving issues like poverty, access to education, and healthcare requires reconstruction of governance, power, and political structures and systems, not sporadic influxes of arbitrary goods. We need holistic approaches, not piecemeal efforts where a child receives a solar-powered computer one day and a vaccine the next. Those dedicated to and working in development, investing their lives and energy in those who need it most, understand that to eradicate the great humanitarian crises of our time, we need not only resources and commitment but a deep understanding of local contexts–an awareness problematically absent from buy-to-give efforts. Ask yourself: How many lives could have actually been transformed if the resources we use to buy things for ourselves were instead utilized to foster sustainable livelihoods?
In order to be positively effective, social change strategies must be built upon an informed and sustainable foundation with the big picture and the long term in mind, not short-sighted ideas focused on the consumer and immediate profit. But the bottom line is that when communities aren’t included in the decision of what they need, their dignity and potential to escape poverty is eroded. What’s missing from the intentionality behind these initiatives is the understanding that people are intelligent enough to solve their own problems, and only lack the resources and agency to act on solutions. If the objective is actual social change, a paradigm shift is necessary. It’s going to take much more than consuming. We certainly cannot buy our way to equality and empowerment.
This piece used to feature an image of Warby Parkers “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” marketing material, but Warby Parker works differently than the one-for-one models mentioned here: the company trains people in the developing world to administer eye exams and sell glasses, rather than giving glasses away.