Tag Archives: shopping

the commodification of charity

TOMS became popular because it represented a humanitarian cause. You didn’t just buy yourself shoes, you bought someone else shoes, too. The distinctive style and little flag on the heel became a sign-exchange value, telling people not only the “look how cool I am” of the Nike swoosh, but also “look how generous I am.”

So it’s no surprise that knock-offs started popping up everywhere. The same distinctive cloth-wrapped style, although sans the blue-striped flag and the “One for One” mission statement. I’ve actually heard women brag that they would never buy real TOMS, they’re so expensive, but found ones just like them for only half the price! What a steal!

I know I’m supposed to do the woman-bonding thing and congratulate her on her stealthy hunting shopping skills, but what I want to say is this:

Well, of course you found ones at half the price, because you’re only buying shoes for yourself. You want the sign-exchange value of “look how generous I am” without actually having to give anything. You want it on the cheap. You want to look giving but without it actually costing you anything.

This is especially true of Toms, given the company’s philanthropic nature, but it’s USAmerican consumerism all over the place. We want it to look real, but we want it made less expensive, regardless of how many people we hurt. Forget the second-pair-of-shoes cost of charity; we don’t even care about labor conditions for the people making our items or if the materials are durable, much less sustainably grown. If you aren’t going to do the research on that, the absolute least you can do is think about why it is you want that new piece, what you’re hoping that purse or those shoes will say about your person—and then make it true.

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not buying it

I just got my Crate & Barrel Holiday Inspiration 2012 catalogue in the mail. Not that I wait for it, but it shows up, so I flip through it.

The first page has a big heading—Home&Holidays—followed by a letter from the president. It feels more like a magazine than a catalogue, and her words encourage the reader to believe that this publication is more than a giant advertisement. “The pages that follow are not only a guide to our new collection, but a celebration of the experiences we have shared in our homes at this special time of the year.” I don’t hate this. Actually, I don’t even entirely disagree with it. My own home is arranged in such a way that (I hope) it is inviting, warm, relaxing. It’s just stuff, sure, but the stuff as much as my husband and I’s demeanor helps our guests feel comfortable and at home.

What I do hate is the juxtaposition of sections of this catalogue. Adding to the magazine feel, the editors divided the catalogue into sections with heartwarming titles such as “Love&Light” and “Friends&Giving”. The first of these is “Grandpa&Grandson.” Two men are shown lounging on leather furniture on either side of a fireplace, with close-ups on scotch glasses and whisky decanters. There are no pressures on these men: they appear relaxed, both with mid-conversation smiles.

The next section is “Mom&Daughter”. No leather, booze, or relaxation here. The one shot of the woman and girl show them focused on cookie decorating. Many of the shots have snippets of busy hands, blurred in activity as the photographer’s lens attempts to capture their work. The section is pages of baking items—mixers, ramekins, rolling pins—and finishes its last page with dishtowels, no doubt to carefully dry all the scotch glasses used in the next room.

Which raises the question: What are we really being sold?

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