Aware Consumerism: Putting our Money Where our Heart Is

I always thought I’d be one of those mothers who shops at the farmers market, magically composts in her New York apartment, wears upcycled clothing, and sips fair-trade pumpkin seed chai coconut milk lattes. But I’m not. I’m the frazzled mom with chipped green nail polish clutching her Starbucks cup, weighed down with plastic bags because she forgot the reusable Trader Joe’s tote. My attempt at composting ended in worm carnage and flies. I want to do the whole buying-local ethical-shopping thing, but it’s kind of like dieting. I start out fully committed, only to cave when confronted with the easy accessibility of Oreos.

But as the current administration pushes their special blend of take-whatever-you-can-grab capitalism swirled with unabashed bigotry, it’s become clearer than ever that corporations are the driving force in the U.S. The Koch Brothers, as much as anything else, killed the Republican healthcare bill. The outcry from the business sector, as much as protestors, eroded popular support for the Muslim ban. So, where and on what I spend my money is increasingly becoming an action I think about. Which companies I choose to enrich with my shopping list and my impulse buys need be based on something more substantial than 30-second TV ads and childhood nostalgia.

Customer alignment, a.k.a. brand loyalty, isn’t about choosing the best product. It’s about our belief that the brand uniquely fits us, even when there are equivalent products. It’s the reason I choose Coke over Pepsi. It’s the reason I have an iPhone rather than an Android. Aligned customers are the most sought-after, valuable consumers because they do not ask themselves if they should by another Honda but which Honda they should buy. We are also the customers that companies fight to keep.

Most of us have aligned relationships with at least half a dozen companies. These are the companies we reach for almost automatically. We’ve bought into an emotional attachment to these brands, but I’m not sure they warrant it any more. Companies spend millions of dollars to develop this kind of relationship with customers, and I’m giving it away for free.

Companies also spend millions of dollars on charitable contributions, lobbying, and political donations, mainly through PACs. Where these dollars go, combined with the overall ethics of the company, is my major concern these days. I honestly, don’t care if a given CEO is registered Republican or Democrat, but I do care very deeply if I’m financing a group that is undermining labor unions, destroying the environment or devoted to “family values.” I want my spending dollars aligned with businesses that support progressive values and my concept of “family values” through labor policies, donations, and commitment to generally not f—king up the world.

It’s time to make corporate ethics a major part of brand loyalty.

To some degree, I have been doing this for years. I don’t eat at Chick-fil-A, regardless of how delicious it is. I choose Target over Walmart and shop at Costco rather than Sam’s Club. But these are easy choices for me because of where I live.

I’m also feeling pretty good about Starbucks these days, even though I’m still uneasy about the chain’s contribution to homogenizing my city. They’re basically the good guys: Hiring refugees, making stands against carry laws, and offering health insurance to part-time employees, as well as full time. The company also is one of the most transparent regarding their political and charitable giving. Besides, sometimes I crave that special Starbuck’s burnt, bitter taste in my latte.

And I haven’t totally given up my Amazon habit despite their Breitbart-advertising-Ivanka-merchandising ways. For one thing, the online giant is the largest sales portal for small businesses. More importantly, Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos owns one of the best newspapers in the country, The Washington Post. And to be honest, I love the fact that Amazon Prime will deliver almost anything to my door in 48 hours. It’s hard to believe that if I buy my daughter’s glitter markers elsewhere, it will make any impact on a company that controls 43% of all online sales in the U.S. But still, I’m slower to click. I just don’t feel good about shopping with Amazon anymore.

Being an aware consumer has to be about more than boycotts. It needs to be a positive path to creating allies worth having. Aligned customers, as a group, can lean on companies to support progressive values as a business platform. Since money is speech and corporations have rights, we need to reward the companies that exhibit behavior we want to encourage.

The question is how exactly to go about determining what companies deserve our business and how to make them aware that we care about what they do. The vast majority of corporations aren’t particularly interested in sharing with their customers how the products are made, what the labor policies are, and what causes the company supports, beyond feel-good public relations photo ops.

In addition to my regular posts, over the next few months I’ll be delving into questions of corporate accountability, accessibility of information, and progressive values as part of branding. If there’s information about a company you can’t find, a brand you’re curious about, or just a topic you’re wondering about, I’d love to hear from you.


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Maud Kersnowski Sachs

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