Jessica King, 37, has been shopping at the Ten Thousand Villages store near Lancaster, Pa., since she was in grade school. She remembers her mother buying gifts like note cards, candles and soaps at the fair-trade retailer, which sells handmade merchandise crafted by artisans in developing and impoverished countries.
"It was easy to compute for a kid: This stuff is made by these women in Bangladesh [for example], and it's creating a job for somebody," she says. So for King, the notion of shopping with a social-conscience "got ingrained really early on."
These days, more and more of us are waking up to what King tuned into long ago: Citizen consumerism -- a fitting topic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when our thoughts turn to matters of social consciousness.
Shoppers are increasingly finding ways to make more of their purchases purposeful, be it by choosing fair-trade products or merchandise that supports a cause.
It's a sign of the times, says Carol Cone, managing director and executive vice president of brand and corporate citizenship for public relations firm Edelman.
The lingering economic malaise and the Occupy Wall Street movement have combined to keep the financial misfortunes of many Americans -- as well as people around the world -- in the spotlight. And the discourse on the Internet and on social media sites has kept the conversation going, "empowering people to not only comment" but engage, Cone says.
Edelman's goodpurpose study, which explored consumers' attitudes about their expectations of brands and companies' commitment to social issues, signaled the rise of the "citizen consumer," she says.
The study revealed that 87% of American consumers surveyed believe businesses need to place at least as much weight on society's interests as they do on business interests.
That comes as little surprise to Cone. In today's economy, social ills such as homelessness, hunger and poverty "have hit closer to home," she says. "There are people who don't have a job and are having problems feeding their family ... It could be your kid's [classmate]. It's very much in your face."
These factors have stirred consumers' charitable and social shopping impulses, she says.
Purposeful Shopping Year-Round
Many national retailers run cause-related promotions on an event basis. Shoppers can participate in programs like Macy's Go Red For Women for the prevention of heart disease, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital at Kay Jewelers to support research and treatment of childhood cancer and other diseases, or Toys R Us' Autism Speaks campaign -- as well as countless others -- but only few times a year.
Those shoppers inclined to link their purchases to causes year-round have to work a little harder.
Ten Thousand Villages, which bills itself as the country's oldest and largest fair-trade retailer, started out of founder Edna Bauer's garage in 1945, and has grown into a retail chain with 70 nonprofit stores throughout the country, as well as an e-commerce site.
"It's interesting that we've been able to grow in this economy," when many other traditional retailers have been struggling, Michele Loeper, marketing manager of retail and brand strategy for the merchant, tells DailyFinance.
As more national chains have begun to sprinkle fair-trade products into their product assortment, it has raised awareness of ethical shopping, Loeper says.
"People are really reevaluating what they're spending their money on," she says. "There's an increased popularity in shopping with a social conscience."
Ten Thousand Villages strictly adheres to the tenets of fair trade, which include providing sustainable income, empowering women -- rather than exploiting women and children -- and making a long-term commitment to developing countries, Loeper says.
The average length of a Ten Thousand Villages purchasing relationship from a developing country is 13 years, and some have been going on for as long as 60 years, Loeper says.
The retailer imports products from 35 developing nations, placing orders for everything from jewelry, home decor and toys to soaps and creams from artisan groups in places "where there's not a lot of income opportunity."
So an order for 80 condiment bowls from Vietnam, for example, will provide sustainable income to the women artisans who made them.
The shopping-for-a-cause movement has also been building momentum online. Shopkick, for one, which designs retailers' smart phone applications, created an app that rewards shoppers when they check into a particular store on their cell phone with points that can be redeemed for advertiser-funded donations to charitable causes, such as the American Red Cross.
Meanwhile, at shopping portal GoodShop, consumers can tap into coupons and deals at more than 2,400 online retailers, and have a percentage of every purchase donated to one of 100,000 charities or schools.
And on sites like Recoup.com, shoppers purchase daily deals, and direct part of the proceeds from the purchase to a favorite cause.
Consumers interested in vetting the cause-worthiness of their purchases can also consult the GoodGuide, Cone says, which has become known as a definitive source of information on the health, environmental and social impacts of retail consumer products.
Ethical Shopping Headed For The Mainstream?
It's unclear yet how widespread shopping for a cause will become. But the pattern of the environmental movement's rise suggests it just might.
Over the last decade, the idea of eco-friendly products moved from the margins into the mainstream, shedding much of its crunchy-granola image along the way. Today, many of the biggest consumer products companies boast "green" lines and products, from laundry detergent to compact-fluorescent light bulbs to organic linens.
Now, as the idea of targeting your everyday purchases to also promote your social values seeps into the consciousness of American consumers, some major chains -- among them Target, (TGT) Whole Foods (WFMI), Starbucks (SBUX) and McDonald's (MCD) -- have been been finding ways to link those purchases to causes year-round.
Shoppers who use Target's Redcard credit card can have 1% of their purchase donated to a K-12 school in need of funding via the retailer's Take Charge of Education program.
And in November, Starbucks launched Create Jobs for USA, a program designed to address the nation's economic crisis, said CEO Howard Schultz during a meeting this fall at AOL's New York headquarters.
Starbucks customers can now buy $5 "indivisible" bracelets along with their venti lattes. Proceeds will go to the Opportunity Finance Network, a nonprofit organization that supports hundreds of Community Development Financial Institutions, local organizations that lend money at low interest rates to small business owners in under-served areas.
With the government in political gridlock, the onus is now on business leaders to take constructive steps towards solving the jobs crisis, Schultz told a room of reporters at AOL's offices.
Could Walmart Go Fair Trade?
There was even talk that Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, was gearing up to launch a line of fair-trade products.
In October, Huffington Post Arts reported that the retailer was in discussions with nonprofit group Aid to Artisans to sell handicrafts from artisans in developing countries. Giving that it has more than 4,400 U.S. stores, the proceeds from such a line could make a big economic impact on the people and communities in the partnering countries.
When asked recently about the possibility, Brooke Buchanan, director of sustainability communications for Walmart, told DailyFinance that although the retailer provides funding to Aid to Artisans, "we have not made any decisions related to them" about a line of fair-trade products.
And while the retailer has made some commitments to sustainable business practices and merchandise -- the company has promised that all of its products will use sustainable palm oil (as opposed to non-sustainable palm oil, a major cause of rain forest deforestation) by 2015 -- Walmart does not have fair-trade goals per se, Buchanan says.
However, fair trade products, such as cherries, bananas and coffee, are sold at Walmart stores and through its Sam's Club division, she says.
Jessica King has picked up Equal Exchange fair trade coffee from Ten Thousand Villages, where she still shops.
Also, "I'm a sucker for their jewelry -- earrings and necklaces -- textiles and table clothes," she says.
King, who is the executive director of Assets Lancaster, which helps low and moderate income entrepreneurs devise business plans, says her exposure to Ten Thousand Villages at a young age directly shaped her career path.
"It was the first example I saw of that model -- using business for social change," she says.
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