Charitable Impulses in a Consumer Society

Start from the premise that we all want the world to be a better place. We want equity, justice, prosperity, security, etc. for everyone. Should we pursue those goals through our purchasing decisions?

Some Mormons view “responsible” consumption as a necessary concomitant to a spiritual life. This felt obligation might manifest itself in myriad ways. Consider choices about food: buying organic fruit and vegetables; educating oneself on the manufacturing practices that created a certain product (e.g., “The Dark Side of Chocolate“); or shopping at co-ops or farmers’ markets. Even if such notions of “responsibility” appeal to you, the informational barriers to implementing this sort of strategy are substantial. Plus, it’s usually more expensive. And it may not be a very effective way to change the world.

Here is a simpler strategy for changing the world through charity: shop for the “best” deal you can find, considering all of the relevant tradeoffs in search costs and personal preferences but leaving notions of social responsibility to the side. Then make donations, including the money that you saved by not shopping “responsibly,” to a trusted charity.

In most instances, I follow the second strategy, and my guess is that it is just as likely as the first to change the world for the better, at least in the sense of transferring resources to those who most need them. On the other hand, I have sometimes wondered whether I am missing out on an opportunity for spiritual growth by being more concerned about the way my vegetables are grown or my beef is produced.

20 comments for “Charitable Impulses in a Consumer Society

  1. At my food co-op, I find better prices on the products I want for health reasons — whole grain pasta, low-preservative dried fruit, peanut butter without shortening in it, 100% juice drinks for my kids’ lunches — than I would find at the grocery store. I buy in bulk and use my purchases for food storage. The co-op has a small profit margin which is donated to charity. And it’s much more fun and socially beneficial for me than shopping at a big box. (But I do that sometimes, too. Target just has *such* fabulous Christmas decorations.)

    And I would love to meet someone who actually keeps the amount they save by shopping for discounts and uses it for a defined purpose. It’s hard for me to imagine comparing prices and donating the few cents’ difference to the PEF or Humanitarian Fund, for example. I just don’t keep track that closely. We just try to stick to our budget and donate a set amount each month as part of that.

  2. Just a note, the really good chocolates don’t use beans from the controversial areas. Not necessarily primarily for ethical reasons. Just that the beans aren’t nearly as good. But if you buy high quality chocolate you’ll almost always end up avoiding the problems.

  3. Gordon,
    You really follow the second strategy? How do you determine the difference? Do you research the average price of eggs and then buy cheaper eggs and then put the remaining 30 cents into a “charity” account? I’m just not understanding how you are not wasting more time (time is money) on this than necessary.

    And if you tell me you get your cheeses on the sale rack at the grocery store your entire argument implodes.

  4. Give Gordon some credit; unless you are equally willing to challenge the Latter-day Prophet who declared that he had a “cigar” fund which he used to buy books. Do you think he comparison shopped cigars and kept actual track of the # of cigars he would have smoked?

    I would venture to guess that Gordon is dealing with the market fact that “socially responsible” companies just use the “non-PC” method of product, or whatever else makes the regular produce unacceptable to the self-conscious “elite,” as an excuse to jack up the price and charge a premium far above that necessary to cover the actual cost of changing the business mode to a more PC model; i.e. when you buy free range eggs, you are paying more than the cost of letting chickens roam, etc. You are paying a premium for your “conscience” and maybe that premium would be better spent elsewhere.

  5. I shop at Walmart, so sue me.

    The way I see it, I am being budget-conscious, prompted by the fact that significant amounts of my income are earmarked for the Lord, in the form of tithing, plus whatever I give for a generous fast offering, plus whatever I give to needy families when the bishop calls, plus whatever I save for my children’s missions and my own post-retirement mission, etc.

    I also think that golf courses are socially irresponsible uses of our land and time. :)

  6. Rusty,

    Part of the rationale for the second strategy is that it reduces search costs. Rather than turning every purchase into a search, I just search for a good charity or charities. So the short answer is that I don’t track the money saved (I am not sure how I would do that even if I tried because I don’t look for the socially responsible item at all), but then I make a point of donating an amount that I think is “generous” to charity. If I viewed my purchasing decisions as partly charitable in nature, I would feel less obliged to donate cash.

  7. Gordon,
    Are you seriously saying that you give NO consideration to these factors in your regular purchases or are you talking about a hypothetical? I would imagine that there is a balance to strike and it’s up to every person to decide where to draw their lines. I mean, if you found out that Levi’s was using slave labor in Bangladesh to make your jeans would you really not change your jean brand? Or would you continue on and donate a few bucks to the PEF?

    Or is this a question of how you get the information? In other words, if I somehow find out that WalMart beats it’s employees heads before and after each shift then I’ll stop going there, but because I consume products from so many companies I’m not going to actively go out and search for issues… better to just hope the charities eventually overpower the corporations?

    And are your cheese purchases based purely on taste? Or do you do any research into the companies that you’re buying from? Would you be more likely to support a local Wisconsin cheesemaker (local economy, friend, etc)?

  8. I think Rusty has a point. There is definitely a middle ground on this one. I think trying to find the point of diminishing returns is likely to be the best bet. Striving to ensure that every part and accessory in your car was manufactured in an “ethical” way is going to leave you with little time to do anything else, but if you’re aware that a certain company employs questionable business or manufacturing practices, supporting brands that avoid those practices is not THAT difficult. Widespread focus on certain issues can itself affect a change so it’s worth doing. Look at Tuna… pretty much all major brands claim to be dolphin- friendly these days. Likewise, most clothing companies go out of their way to avoid practices that may bring accusations of them employing “sweatshop” labor (Look at what it did to Kathy Lee’s company). By both doing what you can and maybe giving just a little more to charity, as Gordon suggests, you’re likely to have the most effect.

  9. Rusty: “And are your cheese purchases based purely on taste? Or do you do any research into the companies that you’re buying from? Would you be more likely to support a local Wisconsin cheesemaker (local economy, friend, etc)?”

    I buy cheese for all sorts of reasons … and sometimes for no reason at all. But I cannot remember ever buying (or not buying) cheese based on something I would call “social responsibility.” As you know, I enjoy learning about cheesemakers, but for me it has nothing to do with being socially responsible. I don’t buy cheese to support a local farmer unless he makes good cheese. (Almost all master cheesemakers are men, by the way.) If he makes bad cheese, he should find a different profession. Or work for Kraft.

    I am happy to accept the possibility of a middle ground, where obvious evil is shunned in the marketplace. But how often do we encounter “obvious evil”? Big corporations do not have a corner on distortion and greed, and evaluating claims by social activists can be just as challenging as evaluating claims by corporations.

  10. Marc: Rusty has a point only to the extent that low-paying jobs (by U.S. standards) in foreign countries are “slave” labor. Some folks would rather patronize the Levi jeans because they know they are helping other people to build a better life than extreme poverty. Some would say it is immoral to buy from a ‘living wage’ factory because it takes opportunity from many and concentrates it among the few.

  11. Gordon,

    Clearly you are being paid off by the retail industrial complex to say these things. You are a bad person and will never enjoy the peace that comes from disemploying Bangladeshi peasants.

    Also, you hate whales.

  12. See, this is the problem with arguing with economists and other free market and free trade enthusiasts–they have all the best jokes. I mean, what am I supposed to do: stand here and crack wise while gently suggesting to Gordon that he could find profound rewards in living a more holistic and environmentally sensitive life, in striving for that middle ground that Marc and Rusty defend with much common sense, while also suggesting that his elision of the difference between developing of a local knowledge of local producers on the one hand and blindly trusting in the claims of professional “social activists” one the other betrays an unwillingness to think seriously about the issue, etc., etc., ad nauseum? Of course not–that’d be boring as hell. But sit back in the peanut gallery and lob a couple of comments about how baby harp seals make for good eating, and the crowd loves you! It’s just so unfair. Why oh why did God have to make capitalism so darn funny?

  13. Russell gets close to the heart of my concluding anxiety when he suggests that I “could find profound rewards in living a more holistic and environmentally sensitive life” by making better consumer choices. I suppose that must be true, just as it is true that I would find profound rewards in reading the scriptures more often, praying more fervently, always doing my home teaching, etc. Given limited time, however, I make lots of tradeoffs, and shopping “responsibly” doesn’t make the list of “ways to improve my spirituality.”

  14. Frank-
    I think the issue with sweatshop labor is more likely to do with child labor and treatment of the employees, children and adults, like animals. Textile factories in England had to reform their employment practices, is it too unreasonable to want Bangladesh or China to do the same? Complaints come because large corporations don’t really want reform, they want cheap labor. Don’t Bangladeshi peasants deserve a job where they can recieve a living wage and decent quality of life? We saw major reform in our country during/after the industrial revolution. Shouldn’t developing countries have the same aspiration, or should they want to stay a third world country? Do you want them to? The educated Americans and Western Europeans are the only ones who deserve human rights? We are the only countries who deserve a strong economy? Throw your sarcastic comments around and ignore the real issues.

    And yes, we should be concious of our spending habits. If people buy the products from companies that do terrible things to people and the environment, well the companies will keep doing those things. Consumers are what keep them in check.

  15. lyle wrote: …when you buy free range eggs, you are paying more than the cost of letting chickens roam, etc. You are paying a premium for your “conscienceâ€? and maybe that premium would be better spent elsewhere.

    This is probably — but diminishingly — true. I know of no reason to suppose that market incentives work differently with respect to free range chickens’ eggs than for boxed-up chickens’ eggs. When I first became interested in organic foods, I shopped at Wild Oats every now and again. It was a lot more expensive than other retail grocery stores, but I liked aspects of it and its wares, and so while I bulked up my grocery purchases at non-organic places, I didn’t reject Wild Oats entirely. Within a couple of years, Whole Foods came into the scene, offering wider varieties of organic products at significantly better prices. So now I shop at Whole Foods, purchasing more (but certainly not all) of my groceries there than I did at Wild Oats.

    From my primitive perspective, markets work.

    Is there something about the pricing of free range chickens’ eggs that more educated minds discern to suggest why I’ve been duped and markets don’t really work there, after all?

  16. Veritas,

    I’ve read through your comment several times. As best I can tell you think that child labor and low wages are problems to be solved through consumer action. This is simply not a very well thought out position. For now let me just refer to an earlier comment I made on a related theme:

    “By paying more through a “living wage” the jobs attract better, more productive workers who would earn more anyway. They do not help the impoverished people in those countries. If a job pays twice the average salary, who in their right minds thinks it will be the outcasts and rejects who get that job? It will be the connected and the productive, who would be doing comparatively well anyway. The more agitation for fair wages, the fewer low-skilled workers will get in. Agitate enough and the firm will move out of the country and go some place with higher wages still.”

    And I’ll add as a side note that you are messing up the causality— higher income is what leads to the end of child labor and better education. Industrialization predated and prompted the move to end child labor because it led to higher income. Parents send their kids to work because they need the money to survive. Outlawing child labor makes those families worse off, not better.

  17. ” If a job pays twice the average salary, who in their right minds thinks it will be the outcasts and rejects who get that job?”

    Wow, you have obviously never lived in poverty. So, the poor are outcasts and rejects? Oppressed women are outcasts and rejects? In India, those born to a lower station than yourself, are outcasts and rejects? Just be glad you live in America where we have LEGISLATED a minimum wage, minimum working age, and length of work day. Higher income didn’t bring those things about because those things are not good for the Corporation’s bottom line. Those reforms came about through lobbying and protest and boycotts and were strongly opposed by businesses in this country. American and European corporations have a large influence in the developing nations, and we, as consumers of their products, have a responsibility to demand they use that influence for good not evil. We should be encouraging education for children, not hard labor. We should be encouraging the people and the governments of these countries to introduce programs that will make their quality of life better.

  18. Veritas, your riff on “outcasts and rejects” is completely missing what I was saying.

    If you have something to say about the point I was making (that pushing for a living wage actually disemploys the low skilled and replaces them with higher-skilled workers) then I’m happy to hear it.

  19. Veritas:

    More proof that more legislation is a bad thing. Minimum wage, overtime, etc., from an economists standpoint, are probably not good things.

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