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 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 as your browser or 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.

More about...Giving

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