Cause marketing is a force in contemporary philanthropy. It’s
so ubiquitous that any single campaign is almost unremarkable—though some
do still manage to catch the public’s attention.

For the nonprofits benefiting from it, cause marketing (or,
as it is sometimes called, “consumption
philanthropy
”) undoubtedly seems like a great tactic, and its proceeds are
a welcome windfall. For consumers, too, cause marketing campaigns can seem
pretty great, since they provide a way of “doing good” by doing pretty much the
same things we were going to do anyway.

Despite its upside, consumption philanthropy is not an
unalloyed good. I share the concerns
of critics who argue that the practice of philanthropy should be separate from
the practice of consumerism.

That said, consumption philanthropy does seem built on an
assumption I share: that our actions and decisions as consumers should not be
considered separate from our role as citizens and neighbors.

Put simply, the things we choose to surround ourselves with
signal, to varying degrees, who we are and what we value. This is obvious to
any twelve year-old who wants the same sneakers his friends have, it’s obvious
to the upper middle class woman pushing her cart down the aisle at Whole Foods,
and it’s obvious to the nun who takes a vow of poverty.

The goal of most cause marketing campaigns is to associate
new or different signals with a given product than we would ordinarily
associate with that product. Buying a pair of shoes from Tom’s doesn’t just
mean you’re the kind of person who wears shoes; it also means you the kind of
person who “takes a
stand on issues that matter
.”

It’s not hard to see why consumers would welcome
cause-marketing practices. In our age of unfettered consumption, the relentless
cycle of acquisition and discarding will wear you down and leave you feeling
empty. Cause marketing seems to offer the chance to introduce a certain
coherency to our lives—to combine our purchasing practices with our convictions
about, say, saving
polar bears
.

The quest for coherency is nothing new. It just so happens
that there are other, more fruitful models than what consumption philanthropy
provides.

In a recent essay about the 19th century social
critic and philanthropist John Ruskin, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs observes,

The great quest of Ruskin’s life was to amalgamate disparate experience: not to allow the various aspects of life to sit separate with one another, as though our prayers have nothing to do with our purchases, or our arts from our labor, but rather to bring all of them together in a healthy, vibrant symbiosis.

To weave these strands into a cohesive whole, says Jacobs, is
to live in an “integrated way.”

Ruskin was blissfully unfamiliar with modern cause marketing
campaigns. For him, everyday objects would not have been imbued with value
because of their tenuous association, at the time of purchase, with some
nonprofit or social cause. For Ruskin, a champion of beauty and handcrafted
objects, buying shoes might indeed represent a moment of moral and aesthetic
consequence. But he never would have believed that the worth of shoes could be
improved by the fact that buying them will provide a child in a third-world
country with a similar pair.

Objects derive value from the care and attention invested in
them, both by their maker and their user. “I cannot but think it an evil sign
of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only,”
Ruskin wrote.

I think it is fair to draw similar conclusions today, when
our shoes and clothes and fast food cups and cars and, indeed, our buildings
are meant to be used for a brief span and then replaced. In our throwaway culture,
in which we surround ourselves with disposable, readymade goods, we rarely
invest in the thoughtful production, maintenance, and continual use of objects.

One could argue that cause marketing campaigns do encourage
both companies and consumers to pay more attention to the context of their
actions—how their decisions redound on others. Which is great. Unfortunately,
they also manage to reinforce our
addiction to consumption, recasting vice as virtue.

Well-made, beautiful objects do not need to be associated
with a cause to drive consumer
interest: their own integrity, beauty, and usefulness are, or certainly ought
to be, cause enough to possess them. This is not to say that companies should
curb their charitable impulses. I wish every businessperson in this country would
give away money on a regular basis. But as we seek to live in more “integrated
ways,” the mash-up that is “consumption philanthropy” represents the wrong kind
of integration.

“For we are not sent into this world to do anything into
which we cannot put our hearts,” Ruskin wrote. It is a high standard, one which
consumption philanthropy—and, it should be noted, much else besides—fails to
meet. But when it comes to philanthropy, which means, literally, “the love of
humankind,” our hearts must always be in it.

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