“Ethical consumers” have a new one-stop shopping option in the Twin Cities area.
Debut: Shop for Kindness is a pop-up store at the Mall of America featuring 14 cause-related brands that support philanthropic efforts worldwide. The temporary brick-and-mortar will be selling big-hearted goods on Level 1 of the mall’s new north wing until Sept. 10.
Its options include Pab’s Packs, which donates one backpack with each purchase to a child with a chronic illness; My Sister, an apparel company that donates a percentage of proceeds to nonprofit partners that work to prevent sex trafficking; House of Talents, which retails handmade artisan products made in West Africa to promote economic advancement in rural communities, and Humble Apparel, a purveyor of outdoorwear that donates 7 percent of profits to Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness conservation efforts.
Debut: Shop for Kindness opens as tectonic shifts on the world’s political stage — not to mention the accompanying cuts in domestic and global aid programs — have led to renewed interest in activism of all kinds. That includes a focus on the power of consumer spending to support worthy causes. And a focus on the powers of keeping pocketbooks sealed when a company’s politics don’t align with personal values.
Donating money to charitable organizations has (one hopes) a direct impact on the causes we care about. But the benefits of buying handwoven baskets and BWCA baseball caps from cause-related brands? The effect is more opaque. How much money is reaching the worthy cause depicted lovingly on the label? How many people benefit from our purchase? How much waste is generated getting the product to store shelves? And does the product’s “give back” mission outweigh the environmental costs of creating it?
In most cases, experts say, the answer is pretty simple.
Companies that promise to do good are probably doing some good, said Lisa Ann Richey, director of the doctoral school of social sciences and business at Roskilde University in Denmark and co-author of “Brand-Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World” (University of Minnesota, 2011).
But the equation gets tricky when it comes to traceability. “How do you know if ‘brandwashing’ is happening?” asked Richey, referring to exaggerations about a brand’s charitable impact. “You’d actually have to travel to the village to check.”
A company might claim to create widespread change across the globe with the sale of its products, for example, but the actual impact is far smaller. “They may be working with 40 women in Africa,” Richey said. “Those 40 women are probably happy to be involved in the project, but the company’s claims [of widespread benefit] don’t match reality.”
The compassionate consumer faces an even bigger quandary since the most humane purchase is often no purchase at all. “The best thing to buy is no thing,” Richey said. “Take the money you were going to use to buy something and donate to an initiative you care about.”
Experts add that cause-related shopping may be raising another problem: Research suggests that folks who engage in compassionate consumerism are less likely to donate directly to causes they believe in, Richey said. The transaction fools them into thinking they’ve done their part.
Of course, some shopping is a necessity. “There are times and situations when we need what we need,” said Michal Jemma Carrington, a professor of ethical consumption and consumer culture at the University of Melbourne in Australia. In these situations, she said, ethical consumers should do their research when they buy and, ultimately, strive to consume less.
Short of booking a trip to that African village, ethics-minded consumers can get started by asking questions of the cause-related brands they like. Who are their nonprofit partners? How much money did they donate last year? It’s the retail equivalent of getting to know your farmer at the farmers market.
“It’s important to bring a critical eye to the shopping transaction,” Carrington said.
This is no easy task. “Information can be hard to come by, and life can be just too busy to track down and assess all of the needed information,” she said. “And companies often don’t make this task any easier.”
If doing this extra, retail-related homework feels overwhelming, know that the intent to buy with compassion can make a difference. Even ethical boycotts contribute to the greater good.
“In the 1930s, there were important boycotts of German goods in the United States long before the U.S. thought of entering the war,” said Tracey Deutsch, a University of Minnesota history professor and contributor to the forthcoming essay collection “Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power” (Cornell University Press, 2017). “Did that stop the Nazis? No. Did it create support for American intervention against fascism? Yes, absolutely it did.”
Americans have a long history of trying to create change through shopping. It starts with protesting the monarchy before the Revolutionary War. Abolitionists organized campaigns to boycott cotton picked by slaves, which strengthened that movement before the Civil War. Activism at lunch counters played a part in the civil rights movement.
“I don’t think there has ever been a moment in history when consumption has been apart from politics,” Deutsch said.
Consumption is one aspect of the landscape of change. Shopping isn’t a cure-all — but it can be a cure-some.
“You can’t buy justice,” Deutsch said. “But shopping reminds consumers of their own political commitments. What you consume is one of a number of choices that you make about how you engage with the world.”
Laine Bergeson is a Minneapolis-based health and style writer.