Tom’s Shoes will give away a pair to the starving poor in Africa for each you purchase. The rain forest alliance sticker on your bananas claims to be environmentally friendly and conserve wildlife. Across the United States people boycott sweat shop factories in South East Asia, in the hopes that their dollar keeps exploited children from oppressive conditions.
What do all these examples of ‘ethical capitalism’ have in common? First, they underline a deep seated guilt about the way our world operates and so, some form of penance for the sin of our society must be made. Secondly, they underline a desire to satiate the deep seated tendency for control over the lives of others. And finally, like the 1960s ‘great society’ they are all hopelessly naïve about the issues they are attempting to solve.
Give One, Donate One Capitalism
There was once a time, long ago when the company TOM’s Shoes had a great marketing ploy. For every pair of shoes you purchased they would donate a pair to those hapless, shoe-less people in Africa. The claim was that this would vastly improve their way of life because the CEO watched all those ‘for the price of a cup of coffee’ commercials and saw kids walking around in squalor. Like most things justified by the orthodoxy of charity, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Our experimental study among 979 households in El Salvador finds modest evidence to support the hypothesis that donated shoes exhibit negative impacts on local shoe markets.” Wydick, Professor, Department of Economics, University of San Francisco
There is another example of THINX which claims that “94% of girls in Uganda report having problems at school due to menstruation and many drop out of school entirely” So what happens when you hand out free menstruation supplies to the third world?
Verdict: (Study done in Napal):
“Girls miss on average 1.3 days of school over the course of the year due to their period. Not only are these effects small, but our estimates suggest that at most, providing modern sanitary products results in a 0.021 percentage point increase in the likelihood of attendance on school days when girls have their period. This translates to at most, a gain of 0.5 days of school per year. We find no evidence that the menstrual cup increased grades, gynecological health, or self esteem.” Emily Oster and Rebecca Thornton, Phd. Economics from Harvard University
Apparently very little. Free Menstruation pads, like shoes do not solve these problems of children not getting to school. Lack of private bathrooms, regional taboo on girls (or menstruation) in school, or the lack of government funding for school all are great reasons why girls and boys can’t make it to class.
But free shoes makes for excellent marketing. The argument being espoused on the surface is a pompous one. But once we peel back a few of the layers it becomes more dangerous. TOM’s wants to do good, they believe that by charging their customers a little extra they can relinquish you from the guilt you must feel over the starving poor in Africa (otherwise, why would you care if they gave to charity or not?). Additionally they use this guilt and shame, perpetrated by churches and the media, to engage in charity activities which perpetrate the following
- Damage 3rd world economies by ‘dumping’ vast quantities of free goods. Potentially eradicating jobs and professions under the assumption that they need the goods and services we find indispensable (is it really so hard to imagine a world where people wear less clothes than you). Cobblers, clothes makers, and blanket weavers are now out of a job due to this wanton dumping.
- Teach children in the 3rd world that free things come from the West and that their own government is a lost cause.
- Make people in the West feel ‘better’ about the supposed damage they think they cause to the 3rd world while simultaneously doing nothing about it.
The argument that we hear, time and time again, is that it’s better to do something rather than nothing. This is markedly false, especially if what you are doing at best achieves nothing (the sin of omission) and at worst causes harm. This desire to control, to judge, and to parent entire nations is one of the most dangerous in our modern ideological tool kit.
The purpose of foreign, corporate based charity has always been to relinquish the consumer of guilt. That is, my existence as an American causes evil in the rest of the world. If we agree with the charity orthodoxy, that we are simultaneously the generators of oppression and the creators of ‘good deeds’ then the liberal’s tendency for control grows great. To concede to the corporate charity scheme is to say that we know there is a solution to a distant, 3rd world government. It is to say that this government is failing in its ability to provide for its people and so must be circumvented. We, the white westerner, know what’s best for Ugandan women and it’s in the form of a cloth period pad.
There is terror and tragedy in the world, unbelievable suffering and vindictive violence. But the solace of ‘ethical capitalism’ is a hollow façade, one which would cause less damage if it would not exist. With every purchase of a Starbucks coffee, or a Tom’s shoe we say that the poor African is stupid and foolish unable to provide even basic shoes; that the rural south East Asian farmer is hopeless awash the rising tide of international capitalism.Thank god they are getting our good intentions plus a tidal wave of inappropriate consumer goods.
By participating in this perverse, self-atoning ritual I am depriving the government of these nations their sacred responsibility to provide a legal framework for their citizens to provide goods and services. I subsidize poor governance and hide the oppression and pain people in Africa must feel every day, all so that I can feel better about myself. Let the dictators of the world rejoice, for I will continue to build your people water wells with every $5 coffee I drink.
So next time you have a choice between a company peddling nonsense charity schemes to the 3rd world with a 10% markup and another which just promises a great product; I hope you’ll consider the latter. If you are really so desperate to feel better and ‘engaged’ in the suffering of people you don’t understand, can’t relate to, and will never visit then do the world a favor and take a cold shower. You aren’t the savior of black Africans or sweat shop children and at best, your good intentions won’t do anything other than temporarily alleviate long standing suffering.
Part 2: The nonsense of ‘ethical’ consumer labels
Part 3: An argument against ‘ethical’ consumer boycotts