Challenging charitable consumerism

Charity begins and ends at home, writes Matilda Surtees.

“Can I interest you in not giving to the homeless?” It’s a jarring departure from the usual charity spiel. I usually view street fundraisers and their ilk as the unwanted pop-up windows of the urban space, and react accordingly – with a self-aware modicum of shame. My curiosity was piqued by this encounter last week, however, and I took the piece of paper the promoter was hopefully flapping at me: “GIVE TO THE HOMELESS YOURSELF.”

Enter Homepage for the Homeless (HftH), a new initiative that has partnered with a number of online retailers, including The Iconic, Amazon, The Book Depository and Expedia, to have retailers donate a percentage of each purchase you make when you click through via the keyhole link on the HtfH site. The donation made to the HtfH parent charity, Ladders, is the usual ‘finders fee’ that the retailers pay to those who refer customers to them via hosted links.

Tweaked into a variety of different models, this fusion of consumerism and charity has grown significantly in the past decade. The blurred line between commercial marketing and charity fundraising is often mutually beneficial – private profit and donations both jump. Research done by Cavill. & Co., a private Australian consultancy agency, suggests that at least 25 per cent of consumers are willing to switch their product choice based on a cause-affiliation.

The broad concept of ethical consumerism tries to extricate over-consumption from a moral vacuum, and remind us that we vote with our dollar; similar sentiments drive many consumer boycotts. The rhetorical impact of charitable consumerism, however, scrubs systemic inequality out of public discussion and recuperates our desire for social justice back into modern complacencies. The idea of giving while you buy legitimates the social value of material consumption, while placing the capacity to effect social change in the hands of individuals. However, aggregating the positive but finite impact of individual charity with alleviating systemic inequality ensures the conversation is cut short far too early.

Charity places an onus on individual, rather than institutional, responsibility. On last week’s Q&A, a frustrated John Falzon, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, reprimanded the current government for exacerbating class inequality in the recent budget: “We’ll try and be there for people but it isn’t charity they should have to depend on, it’s justice they should be able to count on.”

This new shift towards charitable consumerism exaggerates the individual capacity to alter systemic inequality. Peer-to-peer, the individualisation of privilege and disadvantage can make charitable consumerism feel like a moral imperative on the consumer. Some of us are better off than others, and it’s not fair or humane – so who can justify not shopping with HftH if you were looking to buy something anyway?

Placing the burden on some of us to save – and on others to be saved by the will of our peers – is an extension of the meritocratic mythology of citizenship: that you are ultimately in control of your own social circumstance, and you can change that of others. It’s an ideal, not a reality, and the emphasis on individual agency erases the magnitude and nature of social inequality. It eases the pressure on institutional powers and shifts our attention from cause to symptom.

There is no reason to stop picking up a bottle of water, or effortlessly clicking through to new clothes via Homepage for the Homeless, which are both offering more positive alternatives to the consumer.
The danger is in the broader ideas about inequality and responsibility that they – and we – buy into. Systemic inequality requires systemic change. We would do better to demand action from our institutions and government than to fuel the growing demand for feel-good consumerism.