Values-Based Consumerism as Double-Edged Sword

It’s a game of connect-the-dots. Do you, as a consumer, feel any responsibility for the purposes to which the companies you patronize put their profits? Do you care about a company’s values, beyond the effect those values have on how the company conducts business? What about its CEO’s values, or the values of its biggest shareholder? Do those factors enter into your purchasing decisions? Should it?

To make the question more concrete, consider the following:

  • If you’re politically left-leaning, do you want to patronize a store owned by someone on the right?
  • If you are a Christian, would you buy a car from an atheist?
  • If you’re pro-choice, would you buy groceries from a chain of stores owned by a staunch pro-life advocate?
  • If you’re in favour of strict gun control, do you want to boost the profits of a company that donates to the National Rifle Association?

For a less-hypothetical example, see this story (in which I’m quoted) by Nicole Neroulias in the Albany Times Union: “Corporate giving is questioned”. The focus of Neroulias’s story is a recent controversy regarding TOMS shoes. The short version goes like this: Blake Mycoskie, head of TOMS, agreed to be interviewed by Jim Daly, president of the right-wing Christian group Focus on the Family. Feminists and defenders of gay rights protested, and Mycoskie issued an apology. On his blog, he wrote: “TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all.” Without questioning his sincerity here, it’s clear that Mycoskie had become aware that his flirtation with FOTF had riled his company’s socially-progressive customer base. Why would someone socially progressive continue to support a company perceived to be in cahoots with the Christian right?

Three quick points:

1) On one hand, it seems to me that, yes, at least in principle, consumers must take an interest in the causes supported by the companies they patronize. We are responsible for the causes we support, even indirectly. Of course, most of us contribute far too little to the coffers of even our favourite companies to make any appreciable difference at all. If a company has a 1% profit margin, and gives 1% of that to some cause, that means that one penny out of every hundred dollars you spend goes to that cause. But then, even merely symbolic contributions matter.

2) People who want corporations to adopt social causes should be careful what they wish for. It’s all well and good to say that companies should do something to “give back” to the community. But when they agree to do so, what’s to say that they’re going to give to a cause that you believe in, rather than one you find abhorrent? Would you rather your favourite software company contributed to your least-favourite charity, or just stopped contributing to charities at all?

3) One of the most interesting things about all this is that what we’re seeing here is the undoing of the competitive market’s tendency to prevent people from acting out their biases. One of the best things about modern markets is that they punish prejudice, and make it more difficult. It’s easy to discriminate against the minority cobbler down the street by traveling a few extra blocks to buy from “your own kind”; it’s much harder to act out your racist biases when buying shoes at a big department store because, well, you have no idea what colour or sex or sexual orientation of the person who made those shoes is. Market transactions today are effectively anonymous and depersonalized, in a way that makes biases of various kinds effectively impotent. The push for certain kinds of corporate social responsibility, accelerated by moves toward corporate transparency and social media, is effectively undoing this.

In the end, it’s not at all clear whether it is a good thing that the market is becoming another avenue for acting out our ideological disagreements.

2 comments so far

  1. Erik Christopher on

    While some people may go to extremes, it is logical that you would support businesses that share you beliefs and values over a business that is contrary to those beliefs.

  2. Kevin on

    I disagree with you Eric. I like to think a customer would support the businesses that provide the best products and level of service rather than simply following a herd mind and supporting a business because they share similar ideals or support similar causes.

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