Consumption for a Cause: Does It Really Help?

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In high school and in college, I consistently volunteered my time at hospitals, food banks, shelters and, one summer, even overseas teaching English to six-year-olds in northern India. Yes, my motivation stemmed in part from the fact that such activities looked good on medical school applications, but I also liked to think I was, you know, doing something to help. I led a relatively charmed life but was keenly aware (thanks to my socially conscious parents) that many others did not.

Ten years later, I'm ashamed to say I've become lazy. Not complacent, just lazy. Volunteering is forever on my to-do list, but work and school and life always seem to get in the way (or I let them). There are many ways in which I assuage my guilt over this perpetual inaction on my part and one of them is to go food shopping.

Yes, indeed, I buy out my shame. And I bet you sometimes do, too.

I'm talking about consumer activism -- that is, the assertion of charity affiliations, political beliefs and social cause sympathies through purchase choices.

Case in point: Walk through your average grocery in the days leading up to Halloween and you're likely to see more pink than orange or black. As National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is a time in which I am prompted to show my support for the fight against breast cancer...by buying shit. Like yogurt, Swiffers, chips and (my favorite) fried chicken. But I shouldn't just pick on the "Pink Ribbons" campaign. Others have done it for me in a far more nuanced and compelling fashion. The glut of rose-colored products that crop up in mid-fall are just the tip of the iceberg that is consumer activism.

Whether or not such purchases actually efficiently further the causes they claim to further is a complicated question that I do not attempt to answer in this blog post.

What I am curious about is the degree to which, say, the average Houstonian consciously buys such products to show support for his or her favored causes. And whether s/he does so in lieu or in addition to engaging in other types of activism (letter-writing, petitions, canvasing, etc.).

I'm the first to admit that when faced with two versions of a product nearly identical in price and composition, it's hard not to justify buying the one that purports to give a percentage of its proceeds to a certain charity. It's far easier for me to give money rather than time to causes I believe in and especially easy if my "donation" gets me something I sort of wanted to buy anyway. I know, however, I'm a far cry from a breast cancer activist just because I saved up a bunch of pink yogurt lids.

But it's better than nothing, right? Eh...I'm not so sure.

Readers, do you make a point of "consuming for a cause"? Is doing so an easy and practical way to "give back"? Or is it just more fuel for the capitalist machine without any deeper interrogation into what created the problem in the first place?

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