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Monday, March 16, 2015

Ethical Spending

The NY Times has a weekly column called The Ethicist, which answers questions from readers, like this one that appeared yesterday:

I am an inveterate crafter — I have a crafting room — but ever since the Hobby Lobby decision, I have studiously avoided its stores despite my deep and abiding love of the place. I know there are some decent retail substitutes out there, but none that can match the giant warehouse of glitter and balsa wood that is Hobby Lobby. Would it be ethical to shop there if I were to make a donation to Planned Parenthood every time I did, sort of like buying ethical carbon offsets? If so, what percentage of my total purchase price should I be donating?
The answer seems simple -- no, if a business engages in practices you vehemently disagree with, you can't shop there anymore. Trying to offset your purchases with a contribution to a cause you support does nothing to send a message to the business you disapprove of.

I try to apply this principle with my spending, since I don't want any of my money going directly to support any person or organization that works against the things I believe in. That's why I won't play poker at The Venetian, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who writes huge checks to right-wingers he wants elected. He may have wasted $100 million in the 2012 election cycle, and will probably spend more next year on candidates who will do his bidding if elected -- yet another indictment of the corruption endemic in our political system -- but none of that was my money.

For similar reasons, I won't get pizza from Domino's (not much of a sacrifice, as I was raised on real New York pizza) or sandwiches from Jimmy John's (too bad, because I did like their food).

In Oklahoma, the legislature considered a bill that would allow a religious exemption for companies that want to discriminate against gays (e.g. a bakery could refuse to make a wedding cake with two men on top). Last week, Rep. Emily Virgin, who opposes the law, proposed an amendment making it mandatory for those businesses to put a sign on their front door telling the world about their bigotry. She said, "If you want to discriminate under this law if it passes, then you’re legally allowed to do that, but you need to own it. You need to fess up to it." Her amendment wasn't voted on because the entire bill was pulled, but there are others still under consideration across the country which may pass. I like Virgin's idea -- which also would allow gays and lesbians to avoid the embarrassment of being refused service.

Sometimes, my opinions about companies change as they alter their stances because their images have been damaged after a company executive made inappropriate public remarks. Remember what happened when Chik-Fil-A's anti-gay-marriage activism went viral a few years ago? LGBT groups called for a boycott, and there was backlash as thousands of defiant people lined up to get Chik-Fil-A's food and stand up for prejudice, but after a couple of days, the number of chicken-sandwich-buyers dwindled and, eventually, Chik-Fil-A stopped giving money to anti-gay-rights organizations. Similarly, Italian pasta maker Barilla turned itself around after one of its top execs made some bigoted remarks about gays -- it now gets good marks from LGBT advocates like Human Rights Campaign.

There are few big corporations that don't have someone mad at them about something, but sometimes, the question of how to spend your money ethically runs into a quandary.

After BP's negligence led to the huge oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico, I avoided buying their gas for a long time, just as I did with Exxon after the Valdez spill, but eventually realized that it's impossible to find an ethical oil company. While I abhor human rights violations here and abroad, that hasn't stopped me from buying Apple products that are made in Chinese factories by overworked, underpaid employees -- but the products made by Apple's competitors are produced the same way. And good luck wearing nothing but clothing that isn't sewn together in outsourced sweat shops around the world.

Is that hypocrisy, or practicality? I'm not going to look into the political or cultural leanings of every single company I do business with, but whenever possible, if I discover that their publicly-expressed values clash with mine, I spend my dollars elsewhere.

That's all I can do.