Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
Making donations alongside everyday purchases.
Like many Americans at the end of 2016, I felt helpless and hopeless about what I could do to improve the cultural climate. Reading the news as it unfolded each day left me feeling like I needed to become more socially active than I’ve ever been before.
So, inspired by many of the “where to start” political activism posts that dominated my social media timelines, I started out by donating a few dollars here and there to organizations supporting causes that I care about, such as the environment, social equality, and at-risk communities. Then I upped my charitable spending with a monthly donation of $10 each to Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, and the ACLU. There was catharsis in clicking each “submit” button. I knew the amounts I could afford to give were the tiniest drizzle, but if enough people felt and acted the same, we could eventually fill buckets.
The problem? There’s only so much of my paycheck I can give away each month. So I began looking into ways that I could continue to direct my dollars towards companies whose beliefs and values were close to mine. If I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, what would I buy and where would I spend?
If I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, what would I buy and where would I spend?
If you asked me a year ago to describe what “fair trade” meant, I’d have had the same flash of panic as Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites when a job interviewer asked her to define irony. Everyday products such as coffee, sugar, and chocolate—my personal Holy Trinity—that are certified Fair Trade are held to rigorous standards to ensure that their countries of origin are paid equitably. (It’s important to note the difference between Fair Trade and Free Trade, which is a whole ‘nother topic.) Proceeds from sales are poured directly back into the community, helping developing communities build schools, clinics, and ensuring living wages. Once I knew to look for the FAIRTRADE certification mark, making ethically conscious choices while shopping for groceries became a regular habit.
The FAIRTRADE certified items I regularly purchase include coffee, green tea, rice, and various fruits and vegetables. I also recently learned that there are Fair Trade wines, so I can feel at least ethically better about spending a night polishing off a bottle while binge-watching Black Mirror.
As an avid camper who visits as many national parks as possible, protecting our natural resources is a cause close to my heart. The outdoor recreation company Patagonia has a long-standing practice of donating 1 percent of daily sales to environmental organizations. This past November, Patagonia announced that 100 percent of the company’s global Black Friday sales would be donated as well. An outpouring of public support from ethically-minded shoppers helped the company raise $10 million in one day for environmental groups.
So, when shopping for a birthday present for my husband, I decided to buy him a Patagonia bivy down vest that I knew he had his eye on. The materials used to make the vest are Bluesign approved; Bluesign is a system that works within the textile supply chain to minimize the impact on the environment. The Patagonia vest was a spendy gift, but I wanted to make an effort to patronize companies that care about minimizing their contribution to worldwide pollution as well as the safety and job satisfaction of their workforce. And, as a big bonus, the quality of their products is excellent and I know that they will last for years to come.
I used to be a big consumer of fast fashion (the retail equivalent of fast food in which trendy clothing is quickly churned out on the cheap), and whenever I clean my closets I inevitably throw away countless tops that pill or shrink after a few wears. I cringe thinking about the waste of both materials and money. While it may sound excessive to spend $120 on a fair trade wool sweater, I know that it will last me for years and easily replace 4–5 of the cheaper disposable sweaters I used to purchase for $30 each from the mall.
I wanted to make an effort to patronize companies that care about minimizing their contribution to worldwide pollution as well as the safety and job satisfaction of their workforce.
Amazon Smile was something I’d been aware of for a while. By going to smile.amazon.com instead of the regular company site, Amazon donates a small portion of the product price to a charitable organization of your choice. I selected the Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights against hate crimes and bigotry. Since December, I raised $4.61 for the SPLC by making twelve Amazon purchases of household items like rechargeable batteries and shampoo. Again, just drops in the bucket, but when I view the Impact dashboard in my account, I can see that Amazon Smile has raised $14,612.55 for the SPLC since November 2016.
You can easily change your selected charity at any time, which is good for people like me who want to support many types of causes. Next month, I plan to switch to an environmental group, to help offset the carbon footprint created by my desire to have a new pair of fleece-lined leggings shipped across several states to land on my doormat in 48 hours.
Which leads neatly into my next resolution — start shopping locally more often. Over recent years I’ve become an Amazon Prime junkie, hooked on making everything I want or need come directly to me with the ease of Harry Potter flicking his wand and uttering “Accio NARS Jungle Red lipstick!” But lately, I’ve been thinking more about the future of a world in which in-demand fossil fuels are being used to drive and fly all of those online impulse buys to us as we inch closer to becoming characters from Wall-E.
Shopping at small businesses is the most direct way I can decrease my carbon footprint while also putting money back into my own community. With each local purchase, we create jobs for our neighbors and support product diversity. (When I travel, I now use my phone to search for small businesses to patronize rather than take the easy route of heading to the nearest Starbucks.)
Small businesses are also some of the best places to buy presents. A local gift shop near my house called Replica Chicago specializes in repurposing materials like bike tires and seat belts into jewelry and purses. They also support a local roller derby and junior derby league and a Chicago-based animal rescue group. I did a good amount of my Christmas shopping there and at a few other neighborhood boutiques, and the recipients all seemed to love the local flair and uniqueness of their gifts. In total, I spent close to $100 within my own neighborhood on gifts.
Shopping at small businesses is the most direct way I can decrease my carbon footprint while also putting money back into my own community.
I acknowledge that I am privileged to be in a position where I can afford to spend a little more on a fair trade food item over a generic brand, or invest in a Patagonia jacket instead of buying from a big box store. When I’ve found myself on a tighter budget, I’ve tried to be both thrifty and environmentally responsible by purchasing used clothing, furniture, books, and housewares from thrift stores, garage sales, and online ads. Going back to the basics of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is as ethical as it gets. Improving my shopping habits has been an ongoing process and I still have lots to learn, but pausing to do a bit of research on a company’s political and environmental leanings before making a purchase is the least I can do.
Kim Nelson is a writer and storyteller from Chicago. She’d rather be sleeping in a tent in the mountains right now. Follow her on Medium/Twitter @ponytailup.
This story is part of The Billfold’s “Resolve” series.
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