A couple years ago, I had the privilege of meeting/hanging out with Shane Claiborne, a definite hero of mine. Around that time, I was spearheading an on-campus movement to reduce our campus' consumption of goods made in sweatshops.
I had a dual focus for the movement - I was interested not only in reducing consumption of unethically-produced products, but also interested in reducing consumption/consumerism overall.
A friend of mine (Robbie, pictured above in white shirt on the right) came up to me one day and asked me a question about something I'd said. "I heard," she began, "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 business 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 (scroll down on the FAQ for the blurb).
What I actually said was that buying TOMS was great but it wasn't the answer. If you don't need new shoes, don't buy any. Buying TOMS to support the cause, or because they're cool, 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. But instead of wasting resources with a purchase, your money will be much better spent through a donation than through a purchase, no matter how ethical the company.
Reminds me of Product (RED) - the tagline on the homepage said "Buy RED, Save Lives." It's a pretty popular notion, now - the belief that through an "ethical" consumerism one can effect positive change.
And it's hard to take a position against movements like this. Again, buying a Product (RED) iPod Nano helps fight AIDS and buying a normal iPod Nano does not (though Apple does not disclose how much of the sale actually goes to fighting AIDS - some companies give 1%, some up to 50%, but it's not transparent). Organizations such as BUY (LESS) have sprung up to counter the idea of "ethical consumerism:" do you really need to buy an iPod Nano at all?
I think that these (for-profit) companies hit on a nice lil' bit of human psychology - we like to buy shit, but if we've done some research or are environmentalists or care about social justice much, we feel somewhat guilty about how much we consume. "Ethical consumerist" products give us an out - we can continue our consumerism, but knowing that a portion (though we usually don't know the size of this portion, and I think it's safe to say it's smaller than we'd like) goes to charity vindicates us.
This is frustrating to an extent; I would like to see more people move away from mindless consumption of non-necessary items as a whole. While I think that what these companies do is somewhat better than the status quo, do they support the faulty notion of "ethical consumerism" and thus slow our society's progress away from the rampant consumerism that we're known for?
I suppose the thoughtful approach to "ethical consumerism" is pretty simple - if you are going to buy something, do a lil' research and perhaps buy something ethical. If you aren't going to buy something, don't. If you want to support a cause, support the cause directly; don't buy more crap that you don't need. I think that's it.