Using Consumerism for Social Good

When I shampoo my hair, I'm helping buy bicycles for girls in Togo to get to school.

According to UNICEF, in Togo, a small nation in West Africa, about half of the women 15-24 years old can't read or write, and the numbers are higher for those in rural areas where there's no access to transportation. Children have to walk 5 to 15 miles, and girls, who typically have more household chores than boys, are particularly likely to drop out before secondary school.

You're probably wondering what bikes in Africa have to do with shampoo. All costs of the Bicycles for Education project — shipping, bike repairs, distribution, and follow-up costs — are paid for through the sales of Alaffia products. Alaffia is a line of hair and skin products made from fairly traded, handcrafted shea butter. While the pros and cons of fair trade certification have been debated, Alaffia founder Olowo-n'djo Tchala, who grew up in poverty in Togo, puts the African communities first, with direct involvement in the entire process and 10% of sales going to community empowerment projects. The current list of projects includes the following:

  • Bicycles for Education. Since 2005, Alaffia has collected more than 3,000 used bicycles to disadvantaged students in Togo so they can go to school.
  • Maternal health. Each year, Alaffia provides pre- and post-natal care to 70 women to reduce high maternal death rates in Togo.
  • School projects. Alaffia donates metal roofs, chairs, and school supplies to schools.
  • Reforestation. Planting fruit and forage trees provides a food source and forage for livestock during dry season, reduces erosion, and improves soil quality.

Consumerism with a cause
I didn't originally buy Alaffia products for any of those reasons. I was at my health food store on a reconnaissance mission to find a sulfate- and paraben-free shampoo that didn't leave my head full of curls a matted, tangled, dry, or gummy mess. I debriefed the helpful saleswoman, who pointed me to the Alaffia line.

While lathering up in the shower, I noticed that the bottle was covered in more than the usual directions and ingredient list. I read enough that my interest in the brand was piqued, and after rinsing, conditioning (no matted mess!), and singing one more verse of Don't Cry for Me, Argentina, I was on the organization's website.

I liked what I read. After all, if I'm going to buy shampoo anyway, and the product works, why not support an organization that was founded to empower people in West Africa?

Buying Stuff with a purpose
I've started to look for more organizations that sell products that benefit a good cause. While I'm trying to cut back on Stuff in my own life, some occasions — gift-giving ones come to mind — are great opportunities to support these kinds of organizations. Interested in doing the same? The following are two places to start your search:

  1. Your charity of choice. Many nonprofits have online gift shops. One example is Women for Women International, which is a recovery and rehabilitation program for female survivors of war that gives them the tools and training they need to become community leaders. The organization has an online gift shop that sells items handcrafted by program participants, as well as featured partner products from companies which are donating part of the profits.
  2. Search WorldofGood.com. I just discovered this site, which sells thousands of products, organized either by category or “purchase impact”: eco-positive, people-positive, animal friendly, or supports a cause. Founded in 2005, World of Good began as a way to help artisans from open-air markets in Western India sell their goods to millions of shoppers browsing the website and now does the same for thousands of artisans like them all over the world.

There also are plenty of lists online for gift ideas that give twice, and there are bound to be even more as we get closer to the holiday season. (In addition, you can use Allgive.com as your browser or GoodSearch.com as your search engine, which donate a portion of their proceeds to your cause of choice.)

My favorite gifts to give are experiences, which is probably because of the current war on clutter I'm waging in my own home. I also like giving homemade gifts or something purchased from local businesses. But sometimes an actual gift item works better for the occasion or the recipient. Sometimes I can't find something appropriate from a local business, and I run out of time to make a homemade gift. And sometimes a girl just wants a sulfate-free shampoo that makes her hair look more like this and less like this. When that's the case, I'm going to make an effort to find a gift or product that gives back.

So, readers, what are your thoughts? Do you already do this? Share any insights (and websites!) you have on socially conscious giving.

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Derek
Derek
10 years ago

April, thank you for the post. I believe that the first 10% of every paycheck should go toward charitable giving, and this is certainly a new way of giving that I have not yet heard of. I am going to look into this. Thank you for sharing. http://www.lifeandmyfinances.com

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

How funny… Frugal Scholar http://frugalscholar.blogspot.com/ just came to the exact opposite conclusion yesterday on her blog, though with a product she knows of cheaper substitutes for.

Um… I like Newman’s Own, but mainly because they taste good, not because they donate so much to charity. I guess I’m not a very good person in my consumption patterns. Fair trade chocolate also tends to taste better than the regular kind.

Pamela
Pamela
10 years ago

Great post, April. I’m so glad to see responsible consumption up for discussion (although I suspect you’ll get some strident comments). I chose several years ago to avoid buying products made where labor laws don’t protect workers. I haven’t been 100% perfect but I’m pretty close. And it’s reduced my spending mightily. If I think I need something and find it’s made in China, I put it down and look for a substitute (fair trade, made in countries with good labor laws or used). Or decide I don’t need it after all. And when you clothe 2 people on less… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

I love their body lotion. They have one that feels wonderful with an amazing orange/almond smell. I’ve gotten for myself and given it for gifts.

cc
cc
10 years ago

you have to read carefully on those charity products tho-
i bought some dish detergent that claimed to donate to a wildlife fund, but by the time i bought it to read the label you had to log onto the internet, register at their website and sign up for their mailing list for them to donate $1 to charity. i called BS on that and haven’t bought that brand again, cute polar bears be damned.

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

I totally agree with this, I just have a hard time personally with defining a product “that I have to buy anyway.” For example, I pay more for coffee that supports good causes because I drink a lot of coffee, I would buy that anyway. But what about say, a blanket? sure we all need blankets to keep warm, but do I need to buy one now? What about just using the other ones I own? Like I said, I just find it hard to draw the line myself.

bagelgirl
bagelgirl
10 years ago

My only problem with this is my total cynicism with any charities. Do we really know how many bicycles are going to Togo?

I cut a check each month to an animal shelter in my town that I can visit (and have.)

Certainly not a perfect system, I realize, but it works for me.

SupportingParents
SupportingParents
10 years ago

I’d like to suggest St. Jude Children’s hospital gift shop. It’s a great place to pick up ornaments, purses, stationary, etc. and supports a great cause. If you are planning on buying that type of item anyway, why not funnel some money into a cause that makes a difference.

@Nicole: Newman’s Own rocks! Paul Newman was an incredibly generous man… a lot of it anonymously. He was the reason my brother was able to go to a special school for learning disabilities so keep buying that salad dressing! 🙂

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
10 years ago

I wrote about this on my blog yesterday–in reference to the FEED Unicef Halloween bag–but I see that Nicole has already provided the link. Thanks Nicole!

Luckily for me, I’m not very brand loyal. So I get many health/beauty needs at Big Lots, Dollar Tree, or the major drugstores w/ “freebates”. I guess that leaves me more cash for donation.

A worthy topic for everyone to think about and find his/her own balance.

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I am not willing to make a buying decision based on a “portion of proceeds” going to any charity. I would much rather make my buying decision (if I even buy anything at all), and separately donate money to a charity that I choose of my own accord. I mean I won’t avoid a product just because they donate to charity (+1 to “Newman’s Own makes awesome salad dressing), but it doesn’t factor into my buying decision. Would you really pay, say, 20 cents extra for something just so a charity can get 10 cents? Fair trade is a different… Read more »

Gretchen
Gretchen
10 years ago

10 % of sales is a lot different then 10% of profits(and I’ve almost always seen the latter).

You see so much of this in October. Buy this pink ribboned soup and we’ll give a nickel to breast cancer awareness funds. Or whatever.

leslie
leslie
10 years ago

I lost a bunch of weight a while back and had to buy a lot of new clothes. One of the things I needed was pajamas. I ran across these: http://www.punjammies.com Now, strictly speaking, I could have bought less expensive PJ’s but I LOVE these. The fact that they support an excellent cause was secondary. It did help me feel a little better about splurging on these though. Generally, I don’t buy products because of the tie in to a charity. However, if it is a product I like anyway, the tie in might sway me if I am on… Read more »

Terrin Bell
Terrin Bell
10 years ago

Charity should start at home. When you buy foreign products you are essentially sending your money overseas instead of keeping it here were plenty of americans need work. There are many great american made body products that are also fairly traded. Buying these support communities right here at home. the last thing we need now in this economic mess is to start buying more products from foreign countries. Further because of varying standards in international regulations usually the products made here are superior. For example, it is illegal to use certain pesticides in the US when growing foods because they… Read more »

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
10 years ago

This is somethnig that I never thought of but definitely support. Sometimes it just makes sense to put aside our frugality and spend some money just for the fact of knowing that it will benefit someone else.

J.C.
J.C.
10 years ago

Great post April! I have been looking for a paraben free shampoo to tame my tangled mane just like you have and will certainly check out this organisation. I am a conscious consumer and choose very carefully where I leave my dollars. The quality of the product will always be the first determining factor for me, but if you gave me two paraben free shampoos at the same price to choose from right now, the charitable benefit would determine my choice.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Pamela raises a good point. It’s amazing how many people will buy (often cheap) goods to support a charity, but not buy fair trade.

I don’t often buy goods that support charitable organizations because they’re usually not something I use or need. (Alas!) I’d rather make a straight donation.

Surani
Surani
10 years ago

Its worth noticing that there is a HUGE difference between “crap-with-dime-to-charity” and “fair trade.” A couple of others commented on it, but I wanted to really point that out. Fair trade means you are supporting a business that is owned by the producers and directly sending money to impoverished people that need it. Charity items means you are supporting a large corporation by giving them your money (say $5) and they give a charity a small part (say, 50 cents) so they can look good and get publicity – not to mention, they get your $4.50 that maybe you wouldn’t… Read more »

JoDi
JoDi
10 years ago

I recently read an article about a company called TOMS Shoes in the Costco Connection magazine. They donate a free pair of shoes to a child in need for EVERY pair of shoes purchased. I thought that was pretty remarkable!
http://www.toms.com/

Wes
Wes
9 years ago

Some commenters have interesting thoughts on buying fair trade. I personally think the idea is a bit silly, so maybe some of you can answer a question I have about it: how does boycotting a country that doesn’t have fair labor laws help the people in that country? Sure, the people in china earning 50 cents an hour to make cheap crap for wal-mart may be underpaid, but what would they be doing if no one bought cheap crap from wal-mart that was made in china? It seems to me like those people are the ones who need my money… Read more »

Natalie
Natalie
9 years ago

I am a HUGE Alaffia Fan!!! Several cool points about Alaffia products that I would like to mention are that the bike project has sent over 1000 bicycles to Togo, and yes, it is indeed a MINIMUM of 10% of the actual sales, not the profits that go back into the community projects. Super Cool. Alaffia products are made with unrefined traditionally crafted, certified fair trade shea butter that is produced by the Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative in Togo, and is run by 97% women. Also super cool. The body care products that Alaffia makes are created in Washington State,… Read more »

Julie
Julie
9 years ago

Thanks for the additional info on Alaffia, Natalie. I’m not a huge fan of their shampoo, but I’m looking into checking out their lotions now that I know they truly walk their talk.

Laura
Laura
9 years ago

I would also recommend SoapHope.com. They lend out all of their profits for one year to women’s microfinancing. Not to mention, they have great products and use recycled shipping material 🙂

Ebba
Ebba
9 years ago

I’m in the midst of starting a business dedicated to teaching about the issues around consumption. I hate that I can’t share the name and more detailed info yet, as legalities have not been completed yet.
Many folks on here are clearly already educated on this matter, but I have to say I am saddened at how many people responded with selfishness. I say, Way to Go on using one of your most powerful tools (money) to support a good cause!

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