My money, your cause, what now?

The first example is not a dilemma at all.

A clerk in the shipping department of your company gets arrested for embezzling funds from the Girl Scout cookie drive. She confesses and is about to be sentenced. Do you fire her?

After that, though, it starts to get pretty tricky.
The off-shore factory that makes the shoes you sell pays its employees the prevailing local wage, which is far less than the workers would make in your home town. You have leverage to move to another factory or try to change the system, but you don’t think Wal-Mart will pay you the premium you need to pay more for your sneakers.

Trickier still…

Your sneakers are made under your control, but the machines used in the factory are made in another factory that uses slave labor.


You have a freelance programmer who, when she’s not working for you, designs websites for groups you find politically repugnant.


You really love your Toyota Prius but it bothers you immensely that Toyota makes a ton of money selling inefficient SUVs around the world.


The University of Michigan just placed Coca Cola on probation to protest the company’s actions overseas (India Resource Center – Coca-Cola Placed on Probation By University of Michigan .)

Do you use Google or MSN or Yahoo? Are you less likely to use them when you hear about censored pages in China? (MSN Censorship & Revisiting The Need For Better Disclosure)

Money equals power. Money flows via marketing, and it flows to organizations that provide goods and services that make us feel good.

But what happens when the non-delivered-non-product-based actions of those organizations start to impact the way we feel?
Do consumers (industrial and individual) have an obligation to spend their cash in an ethically consistent way?

I have a valued business partner that creates products I’m ashamed of. What do I do now? Do I have an ethical obligation to change how I work in order to make my feelings clear? Do I have a marketing obligation?

What happens when consumers use the power of their money to make their feelings clear? What happens to Chick-fil-A or Bennetton when every purchase becomes a political act?

None of this used to matter very much. Corporations had far less power and were far less global. Their actions were more contained–you probably didn’t have programmers in three continents and factories on four. And the competition for dollars was much less severe.

Today, though, we’re seeing documentaries about the community-breaking power of a Wal-Mart. We hear about the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks that oil companies manage to lobby for. And an oil spill or industrial disaster can wipe out big chunks of the environment.

To date, with the exception of easy (and juicy) black and white scandals, consumers of all stripes have been resistant to taking action with their dollars. Part of it is laziness, part of it is selfisness and part of it is a long history of a laissez faire disconnect between what we spend and what we believe.

I think that’s about to change.