Initiatives such as Fairtrade certification or cause marketing bring together two basic human activities: consumption and helping the other. For instance, by choosing to consume fairtrade wine, you can contribute to raising the living standards of the communities that created it; while buying blue-ribbon adorned merchandise this month will raise funds for prostate cancer research. Hitting two birds with one stone, right? Not so fast.
Authors like philosopher Slavoj Zizek or journalist Rob Walker propose that such acts of charity through consumption work as a compensation mechanism. In other words, consumers worry less about the impact of their choices in some areas of life because they ‘did good’ in others. An extreme example of this selective approach to ethical consumption was given by journalist Ed Vulliamy during an interview on BBC radio 4, on November 8th 2010. Reflecting on the escalating violence along the US-Mexico border, where nearly 29,000 people have been murdered in the last 4 years as a result of the war between drug cartels, Vulliamy noted, exasperated:
‘We have this sort of ethical consumerism idea these days – How ethical is my Frapuccino? Who made my Primark blouse? – But drugs (are) weirdly exempt from this. How many lives just went up the supermodels’ nose? No one, really, in those literati nights in London, NY or LA talks about drugs in that way’.
Perhaps this is an area where social marketing researchers and practitioners could make a difference? Ideas welcome.