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Formula for Guilt-Free Shopping

When did consumerism transform into charity? Companies selling consumer goods from lunchboxes and socks to soap and medical scrubs are using the "one-for-one" model; when a customer buys a product, the company will donate one to a person in need. The model was first introduced by Tom's shoes, but the company is actually moving away from that model, possibly due to questions about its effectiveness.

So when did "charitable commerce" become a default requirement for a successful retailer? Corporate social responsibility is a GREAT thing, and the examples these companies are leading, by encouraging us all to think about the less fortunate as we part with our disposable income, is a wonderful development. Since Tom's pioneered the model in 2006, the number of companies following this model has exploded in the last decade.

One explanation is that the internet and social media have made us all more informed consumers. The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in 2011 pointed an angry finger at corporate greed and exploitation. Awareness of child labor in the production chains of large retailers has led to customer backlash. The long-held stereotypes of large corporations as unethical, exploitative polluters have made it imperative for companies to prove that their business is socially conscious. This is the most apparent explanation for why companies use the "cause marketing" model, but why is it successful? Why are customers so willing to (literally) buy into it?

Industry surveys show that 91% of Americans would switch to a brand that supports a good cause, given similar price and quality. One theory is that having a portion of our money go to a good cause relieves some of the guilt we might feel from consumerism in general. Should we be buying another pair of new shoes when our student debt load is so high? Is American hyper-consumption driving climate change? We're bombarded by advertising pushing us to consume, while also being shamed about the consequences of our irresponsible shopping habits. Perhaps "conscious consumption" is a way to put these competing forces to rest and find some mental peace while scratching the itch to buy something.

The act of giving activates feel-good emotions that can lead to a feeling of euphoria for the giver. Buying a product where some of our money gets diverted to charity feels like giving to a good cause. Perhaps the "high" from giving gets conflated with the act of buying a product for ourselves, attaching more dopamine to the consumer purchase. We get the quick-hit of dopamine that comes with buying something new, combined with an even more powerful dopamine hit from our generosity to the less fortunate. It's a powerful combination for keeping us on the hedonic treadmill.

Charitable consumption may also give us the feeling of enacting social change through our consumption. We feel like we are making a positive impact on the world just by clicking "add to shopping bag." Perhaps we have given up on our leaders and politicians to pursue social improvement and care for vulnerable populations. In our desperation for a more fair and safe world, we've turned to corporations to serve the sick and hungry because they seem to be the only ones willing to act.

One has to wonder the impact that charitable commerce has had on real, actual charities. If I can get a new pair of shoes or sunglasses and still feel like my dollars are going to charity, am I still as likely to donate directly to a charitable organization (where a vastly higher percentage of my donation will be used to serve the vulnerable)?

Here are a few more perspectives on the topic:

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