The Big Issue : Edition 449
PHOTOGRAPHSBYJAMESBRAUND(RAZER)ANDALANATTWOOD(RICKY) RAZER THE BIG ISSUE 10 – 23 JAN 2014 13 MARKETING ETHICS » Helen Razer is a writer, gardener and (now) understandably reluctant shopper. Her charity and compassion are genuine, but not for sale. “I’ve seen a new brand of breakfast cereal that promises, not only to increase my bowel motility but to donate some of the profits to an ill-defined ‘needy’.” LIKE A GOOD many persons determined to hold the last thread of their sanity, I like to avoid unravelment in a shopping centre. There, we are forcibly reminded not only of all the things we do not want but of all the things we do not have. And, set apart by a sense of compound inadequacy so great, not even the greatest seamstress of souls could stitch us together again. Shopping centres – most particularly the large ones – are bad enough as they needle us into consumption. But I’ve found of late they’ve got marginally worse in allowing a new product to be sold. Now shopping centres sell compassion. You can see it on the shelves of the supermarket: I’ve seen a new brand of breakfast cereal that promises not only to increase my bowel motility but to donate some of the profits to an ill-defined ‘needy’. I see fair-trade coffee and ‘humane’ meat. In the cosmetics stores I see beauty that promises it is ‘cruelty free’ and linens that are ‘organic’ and promise not only less danger to the ‘environment’ but to the bare skin of one’s vulnerable family. I see ‘ethical’ and ‘compassionate’ choices in the camping-goods store, DVDs that promise to ‘raise awareness’ on the shelves of electronics merchants, and ‘biodynamic’ wine. Now, the ‘choices’ I make as a shopper are contingent not only on price and need and aspiration but the fear of the impact I might have on a textile worker, a chicken or a child. Now, in one reading of the confusing volume that is consumption, the text is easy to read: we are more informed shoppers now liberated by our affluence to the degree we can make a good choice. In another, this is a new form of paralysis. Most especially when it comes to hazy terms like ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘ethical’, this new form of marketing – and it is marketing any way you care to slice and dice its compassionate intent – gives us more cause for confusion at the point of sale. Wanting to do good is good, and actually doing good is even better. But I do wonder what has happened to our understanding of compassion when it has begun to be something we can actually exchange for money. Against my will and to fill my pantry, I again visited my shopping centre last week. I have taken to making very explicit lists drawn to very specific budgets these days, to avoid feeling guilty about my lack of goodness in the dairy aisle. But the conspicuous compassion got me before I’d even made it past the security gates of the supermarket. A young man asked me if I’d like to donate to his cancer charity. Now, I’m on a pretty modest income and charity is something that is difficult for me to offer so I set myself my own fundraising goal each year for one refugee advocacy and one Australian Aboriginal literacy fund. I usually explain this to charity collectors when I tell them I’m unable to help but I found it particularly difficult on this occasion. The young man appeared to have cancer. Actually, he looked perfectly healthy when I think about it. There was nothing about his appearance or his quick gait that suggested infirmity. But he was wearing the bandana we associate with chemotherapy. I explained to him that I just couldn’t afford the donation and he looked at me and asked, “But what about your compassion?” I was troubled. Not only that I had been accused of lacking in compassion, but that I had been told that compassion was something I could buy. I was also troubled later by the realisation that this man, a paid employee of a charity, dressed to resemble an oncology patient. In a world that permits Disease Fancy Dress and the promise of saving the Earth through beauty products, compassion has been bought, sold and drained of all its value, I thought. Man. That was a bad day at the shops.