SUMMER BLOG SERIES #1: Questioning Consumer Choices

Within the past decade consumer charities, or as I like to call them, hype charities, have amplified across North America. These charities, with their specialized branding and elusive marketing, have changed the way that the Western world chooses to give their money. A consumer charity is defined as an organization whose supporters purchase a product designed to help others in need, particularly in developing nations. In return, these charities offer a “one for one” business model, where when a product is sold, the same product or a portion of the money received, is then in turn donated to the company’s charitable beneficiaries.

At one point or another we have all been witness to, and perhaps even a participant in these charities. From a Western citizen’s standpoint, it becomes very appealing to give to a charity and also receive something in return. Unfortunately, this translates to the fact that some of these organizations tend to circumvent the selfless nature of charity. The Western world, driven by capitalism, has created a population of people who live in a culture of self-centeredness. Many people are ignorant to their own privilege, and therefore only want to give and support others when there is something in it for them. Consumer charities provide a platform for people to feel like they are less self-involved because they have the perception that they are contributing to a great charity; meanwhile the focus moves away from those in need and more towards the product that is being sold. In this sense, charities are becoming more business-like, as many of these organizations are for-profit entities. These charities contribute to the growing global phenomenon of “slacktivism”, a term coined by Malcom Gladwell, which is a culture of activism without real physical action.

Although consumer charities are an effective way to gain large scale support of a particular issue or group of people suffering around the world, we as consumers need to stop and consider the priorities of the people in need and determine whether or not we are truly helping. Many consumer charities create and sell a product that is desirable among their customers without taking input from the charitable beneficiaries on which area they require the most assistance with. With the “one for one” business model of most consumer charities, this type of giving ignores the social, cultural, and economic differences we have with the developing world receiving our charity.

By contributing to a consumer charity that focuses its attention on a product rather than people or an issue, we tend to help from our own point of view. This is very problematic as there is a clear disconnect between the goal of the charity and the actual needs of the people receiving aid. Unfortunately due to this disconnect, consumer charities miss the mark and sometimes do not get to the root of the problem. The Joyful Project is different from a typical consumer charity as it offers a unique approach to giving. Rather than creating a product and a brand based on the popularity of their customer base, they actually help support an existing company in India with their own goal and their own products. This is incredibly significant!

It is easy to see how some consumer charities can utilize the poor rather than performing as an actual act of social justice. Especially in the Western world where capitalism governs the economy, consumer charities often expose the poor or disenfranchised groups in order to make a profit. Luckily, as consumers we can act as social justice warriors by being educated and aware of the products we buy as well as the companies we support. When looking to support a consumer charity, be mindful of where, how, and by whom their product is made, otherwise we can easily contribute to the oppression of one group of people in order to assist another. When it comes to consumer goods, we need to ensure that the workers are treated fairly in the workplace; this includes honest wages, benefits, and a safe working environment. Additionally, it is equally important to determine where our money is going, the goals of the organization, and how our purchases are helping those in need. If the products we are buying through consumer charities are going to benefit their customers in the developed world more than the vulnerable groups in developing nations, we as consumers need to reconsider whether or not we should support the organization.

Thankfully, with input from academics, activists, and passionate people around the world, consumer charities are evolving and growing into more holistic organizations. But the road doesn’t end here! Consumers play a significant role in the success of these charities and the lives of the people in the demographics they serve. My view of social justice means eliminating oppression and restoring equity through the products I buy, the food I eat, and the causes I support. I choose to question the larger social order and be critical of the influence capitalism has on my life and the relationships I have with others in my community and around the world. As consumers, I urge you to do the same.

So, I leave you with this:

Moving forward, educate yourself, ask questions, purchase responsibly and ethically, but most of all be mindful and you will make the greatest impact in the world.


Brittany is a recent graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Honours Sociology and Labour Studies. She will be returning to Brock this fall to begin her Master’s Degree in Social Justice and Equity Studies working alongside her advisor, Dr. Kendra Coulter, where she will study the potential of fostering humane jobs in Canada.

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