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Sunday, December 23, 2007

I Gave at the Mall

Save the world by buying a bottle of drinking water! That idea sums up the latest in the feel-good trend sweeping the country: spend money on something you want and would buy anyway, and get that warm feeling associated with helping your fellow man at the same time. Buy a $1.80 bottle of water and Ethos/Starbucks will send a whopping five cents to help children around the world get access to clean water. What could be better? Except that bottling of water in plastic, is, as we now know, a wildly irresponsible way to sell our drinking water.

What if Starbucks instead supplied access to tap water with some paper cups next to it? Every time a person took a cup, they could drop $1 into a can, which would then be sent to help children have access to clean drinking water? The customer would save 80 cents, the children would get 95 cents more, and we wouldn’t waste all that plastic and generate tons of non-biodegradable trash. Well, obviously, Starbucks isn’t going do that because then they’re out $1.75 on every bottle they didn’t sell.

The Ethos water charade is just one example of this trend towards incorporating a false sense of charity into an activity we engage in all the time anyway, namely shopping. We just go to the mall, not out of our way one bit, and we can buy things we were going to buy anyway so corporations will give a percentage of the profits to some charity. The Product Red campaign is a good example of this trend. We’re made to feel like we’re solving world hunger by buying a red iPod. A red iPod Nano costs $199. However, the blue one costs $199 also. Why should we feel so great about ourselves? We did nothing charitable; we simply bought something we wanted anyway and perhaps compromised on the color.

But hey, this is not to imply that it’s not good that corporations are committed to giving money towards causes like AIDS in Africa. And it’s not wrong that the corporations are only participating in these drives so that people will buy their products, either. They’re in the business of making money, so they’re just doing what they do. But let’s call it what it is, huh?

We’re being given the sense that every time we buy something, we just did our part to save the world. But if we really look, are we abdicating what is our responsibility--to truly help others?

I recently saw someone with four of those one-dollar rubber wrist bracelets at a coffee shop discussing the meaning of each colorful band. “This one is for poverty, this one is for cancer awareness…” He had spent a grand total of $4 to look like the second coming of Mother Teresa, all the while sipping a $4.95 mocha latte.

You see the signs everywhere — we can “feel good” about buying from this and that store. This one gives to charity, that one promotes fair trade, the other one is committed to being “green. “ What does that mean? A Connecticut car wash promotes itself as being “green” since it installed solar panels on its roof. While this will only meet a small fraction of the car wash’s electricity needs, we’re told to feel good going there to clean our SUV, even though hundreds of gallons of water mixed with phosphate pollutants from the soap go down the drain.

America is a generous nation, contributing a record $295 billion in 2006 to charity while corporate donations were $12.72 billion, a decline of 10 percent from the previous year. As much as it’s great that corporations are feeling that it’s necessary to look like good members of the world community, it’s obvious that we can’t leave it to them to do our giving for us. We need to think as much about our charity as we do about our other purchases. We can’t allow buying an overpriced bottle of water when we’re thirsty to replace well thought out contributions to deserving organizations. We need to continue doing what we’ve always done — volunteer and be generous, and not allow “I gave at the office” to become “I gave at the mall.”


Cathy said...

And I thought I did something great by getting the red ipod. Thanks for opening my eyes. Good information.

CresceNet said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é . Um abraço.