Save the World in 2014: Don’t Go Shopping

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January 8, 2014; Pacific Standard

Want to save the world? Just go shopping. If you walk down the aisle of your local grocery store or mall, you will likely see many different products linked to charity. If, by some strange chance, you did not put something “charitable” in your cart, do not worry. You will also be asked to donate at the register.

Cause marketing campaigns and social businesses such as TOMS Shoes, Ethos Water and Nika Water have proliferated in recent years. There is, of course, a lot of good that has come out of such endeavors. Awareness of diseases such as breast cancer and heart disease has increased dramatically, in part due to corporate sponsored advertising campaigns.

But how effective is cause marketing as a form of philanthropy?

Such advertising leads many consumers to believe the “charitable choice” they need to make is which brand to buy. It is tempting to believe that choosing one brand over another is making a difference. After all, donating some money to some charity is better than not donating at all, right? It depends. As Casey Cep, a columnist for the Pacific Standard, writes, “The market has seduced us into believing that buying goods is doing good.”

This is a mistake. The charitable choice is: in what type of world do we want to live? If we want to live in a world where all children have access to shoes, we must recognize that giving away shoes will not get us closer to that goal. Instead, we must understand systemic causes to poverty and we must commit philanthropic dollars to long-term solutions.

It is, of course, easier to go shopping.

Angela Eikenberry has also written about what she calls the hidden costs of cause marketing. While there are some benefits to cause marketing, Eikenberry encourages us to consider the long-term challenges, including the fact that the market itself creates and propagates many of the social, physical, and environmental problems philanthropy seeks to correct.

It seems corporate philanthropy may compound the market’s pre-existing externalities. TOMS Shoes, for example, has fallen under criticism for the displacing local shoemakers in the countries where it distributes free shoes. Critics have also suggested that Starbucks is unduly profiting off the philanthropy-driven markup on its Ethos Water brand. One rather incensed critic donated $100 to Charity: Water in lieu, he calculated, of purchasing 2,000 non-recycled, landfill-headed plastic Ethos Water bottles.

Cause marketing isn’t all bad, but as Cep reminds us, “Ethics don’t often scale well, so why outsource your charitable giving to a corporation?” Instead, she offers a New Year’s resolution that is simple but profound: Buy less; donate more dollars.—Jennifer Amanda Jones

  • Joe Waters

    Buying stuff that supports a cause is just one piece of cause marketing. Most money is raised at the register with businesses asking shoppers to kick in a buck or two. Check out Cause Marketing Forum for their report on these programs in 2012. Looking at just the top 60 programs collectively they raised a whopping $360 million dollars. Keep in mind there are hundreds of these fundraisers not reflected in that total.

    So, yeah, don’t buy stuff that benefits a cause. But when you are asked or see an opportunity to give at the register – and you have your wallet out anyway – kick in a buck or two. Everyone wins.

    The point with cause marketing is that it gives us lots of options to give. It also doesn’t exclude other types of giving. The key to raising more money to solve problems is giving people – rich, poor, middle class – the ability to make small donations in all sorts of ways.

    Remember, cause marketing is an American invention that harnesses capitalism for good. You may not like that part, but it’s also created a giving democracy that engages THE PEOPLE and not just the one percent.


    Joe Waters

  • Megan Strand

    I have to agree with Joe’s comment. For example, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (supporting 170 children’s hospitals throughout the US and Canada) has raised literally BILLIONS, primarily in $1 increments at their retail partner cash registers. Ronald McDonald House Charities raises MILLIONS each year in nickels and dimes and quarters. Some of these programs make crowd-sourced philanthropy a reality. So you only gave a dollar. But if billions do so alongside you, it can make a real impact.

    I’m sure both Joe and I would agree that cause marketing won’t “save the world”, but there’s something powerful about consumers starting to demand that the companies with which they interact behave more responsibly.

    The beauty of our connected society today is that, per your example, when TOMS received increasing criticism about where their shoes were produced, as a smart company, they LISTENED and are starting to make operational changes.

  • Kevin Feldman

    How about, “Keep buying and donate more.” Don’t forget that there a jobs at stake when purchases decline.

  • Kristie

    posted to a friend that shared this…

    “Disagree… People buy things they want — shoes, water, etc. — to live the lifestyle they choose. So IN ADDITION to donating, they can choose to purchase products that are at an acceptable market price and that ALSO support a cause. We do this with our little dog rescue. I’ve found that people want to buy hoodies, tshirts, etc. because they need/want clothes and will buy them to support our work. But they are the same people that will donate money unattached to anything. If we didn’t offer apparel, we would miss out on additional dollars for our dogs. And it’s not mutually exclusive — it’s not that people buy a hoodie and will not donate. It’s quite the opposite… For us at least. These brands can create awareness for issues of which people were never aware… The author misses a lot in the article…”

  • Carol

    As a founder and president of a nonprofit which has benefited from cause marketing, and as a CPA with over 20 years experience in serving nonprofits of many types and sizes, I think it boils down to people needing many different kinds of choices in how they give. There is no one size fits all. For some consumers, cause marketing may be the only way that they would consider helping a charity or “giving back” in some way. As with anything, it pays to find out more details of where your contribution is really going and what percentage is actually benefiting the programs, or exactly how is your product purchase helping this cause and is the “cause” a just cause to begin with.


    Carol Davis