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Students should advocate change through spending habits, not through a ‘like’ button

UnicefAs I poured over my news feed on Facebook during the holiday break, it was hard not to feel inadequate compared to the growing number of students engaged in humanitarian efforts. Links to documentaries focused on particular injustices, status updates liked by hundreds stating a startling fact about inequality, and cover photos graciously donated to the cause of climate change have seemingly become the new norm for activism.

But are such armchair efforts really doing that much to make the world a better place? Research suggests a resounding no. The fact is that much more good would come from students by simply making more conscientious spending decisions.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines slacktivism as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement.” You might recognize it in the online petitions asking for you to share or like a page, and while these efforts no doubt increase outreach for many issues facing the world today, research shows they do very little to benefit the causes themselves.

A study by the University of British Columbia suggests that slacktivism may actually result in fewer donations for causes.
“Our research shows that if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media, it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on,” said co-author Kirk Kristofferson said in a statement to CTV News.

The Swedish division of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), who ran a campaign called “Likes Don’t Save Lives” earlier this year, which included a 10-year-old orphan speaking to the camera, shared such a sentiment.

“Sometimes I worry that I will get sick, like my mom got sick. Then who will look after my brother?” said the child, captioned in English.

“But I think everything will be alright. Today, UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook. Maybe they will reach 200,000 by summer. Then we should be alright.”

So, what is a better way to address some of the world’s problems? One solution involves simply spending money. It’s called ethical consumerism.

Ethical consumerism isn’t a new idea. The principle behind the idea — that you can promote change by supporting only companies that follow ethical practices — comes from a foundation of capitalism that is as old as Adam Smith: supply and demand.

If enough consumers support companies that contribute beneficially to solving the world’s issues, then demand for those products will rise, as will the profits of companies who supply such ethical services and products. Such a process should, in theory, force unethical companies to adapt to more ethical standards or risk financial downfall.

A great example of this concept was presented in the 2008 documentary Food Inc., which showed how Stonyfield Farm was able to get its organic yogurt distributed in Walmarts all across North America.

For the most part, it seems Canadians have bought into such a version of activism. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians consider themselves ethical spenders, according to a 2010 study by Abacus Data, an Ottawa public opinion and marketing research firm.
But according to the 2008 Statscan General Social Survey, only 28 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 24 said they had chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons. It seems that students, perhaps from a lack of disposable income, are not letting ethics affect their purchasing power.

I understand that at this point in our lives, buying organic, free-range beef at the grocery store every time might not be realistic. But there are simple ways we could make more ethical consumer choices without breaking the bank.

Choosing to buy on-campus certified free-trade coffee choices — or getting it free from Muggy Mondays — is one way to make a statement to such coffee giants as Starbucks and Tim Hortons. They need to produce more ethical products, neither of whose coffee, besides Starbucks’ dark Italian roast, is certified fair-trade.

Or perhaps next year we can continue to use reusable mugs during the holidays, rather than leaving our environmentalism at home in favour of holiday paper cups.

One of the best ways we can promote change is through choosing cell phones that are not only ethically produced, but also have a lifespan of more than one or two years. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, a huge part of which consists of mobile phones. In 2010 alone, the United States was responsible for the disposal of 152 million mobile devices.

Resisting the urge to upgrade our phones each year might force cell phone companies to develop products that are promoted by their durability rather than the size of their screens.

Ethical consumerism is not the only solution to solving the world’s many ailments. The best option remains to donate money to organizations that you believe in. Promoting causes on Facebook is not a bad thing, as long as you keep such efforts in perspective.

We need to start focusing less on expressing how offensive issues are to us and focus more on what we can do about them.