Ethical Consumerism Part 2

I had to write a blog post for the LVC blog so I updated this one and here is the result:


In college, a friend of mine asked me a question about something she'd heard I'd said. "I heard," she began, trembling slightly, "that you think we shouldn't buy TOMS."

What she heard was half-true. I love TOMS (seriously check them out, a definite model for aspiring triple-bottom-line businesses everywhere), especially since they've made an explicit commitment to not only giving a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair that's bought, but to require fair labor practices in their factories.

What I actually said was that buying TOMS was great but it wasn't the answer. My ideology was: If you don't need new shoes, don't buy any. Buying TOMS because it makes you feel good to support the cause plus you get something out of it, instead of buying TOMS as a replacement for another shoe that you were already going to buy because you need new shoes, substitutes one "evil" for another - supporting unethical labor practices for supporting unnecessary consumerism.

It's a tough, weird ethical debate; surely buying TOMS, no matter how many pairs, is better than buying sweatshop-produced shoes, and gets more shoes onto the feet of children in Argentina and South Africa and wherever else TOMS gives shoes. Add to that the fact that the more TOMS we buy means more fair-wage jobs for folks in Argentina. But instead of "wasting" resources with a purchase, your money will be much better spent through a donation, no matter how ethical the company.


It's an interesting dilemma and, fortunately for LVCers, one we don't have to confront often - no capital, no capitalism. But we're no strangers to making others, who do less than we do or do it for different reasons, feel guilty about their choices.

It reminds me of a parallel ethical debate - donate to the panhandler or to the social service agency down the street from her? One is obviously more practical; more efficient. But there's nothing better than the feeling like you've helped someone eat that day - and nothing worse than the cold, sad stare as you lie into the face of a desperate man while coins fatten your purse. There's nothing better than looking down at your feet and imagining that there's a kid halfway around the world possibly wearing the same shoes as you, his first pair ever, because of you - and nothing worse than wondering how much waste the consumerism you've contributed to produces and how cheap, relatively speaking at least, it would be to feed and clothe all of the children around the world.

I think we tend to want to downplay this, the emotional side of charity - when ignorant rich White moms in suburbs talk about the warm fuzzies they feel when they venture downtown to serve soup kitchen food once a year at Christmas, it's hard to not want to scoff and say, "It's not about you." But - it kind of is. And - we're just like her. And - it's OK.

Whether we're doing good for our own benefit - because it gives us warm fuzzies, or we like the idea of being martyrs, or it will look good on our law school application, or the shoes are so fashionable right now - or for the "right" reasons (as though they exist), we're still doing good. And good is good. And more people doing more good is even more good, so if feeling good gets more people to do more good then feeling good is good too. Right?

I maintain: if you have money to burn, and no need to buy anything, but you wanna help out, then donate it - but I want to apologize to my friend. We should never feel guilty for doing good. Go buy yourself a pair of TOMS, sweetie. They're good shoes.

1 comment:

  1. We really live in the worst part of the world in terms of consumerism. We don't have a real culture so buying frivolous shit "replaces" that.