Sixteen years ago, I was sitting inside a Land Rover, slowly driving through the dusty streets of Adis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was my first and only visit to this culturally rich, extremely populous nation in Africa and I was overwhelmed by the visible need of the 18th poorest country in the world.
It is tradition to give alms to the poor in both the prevalent religions of Orthodox Christianity and Islam. This practice, combined with the reality of deep poverty, meant that our Land Rover was continually mobbed by beggars at every stop and intersection. My 21 year old self was quickly overwhelmed by the need so clearly visible in the raggedly clothed, crippled bodies pressed against our windows.
Each time we ventured from the vehicle, we were clutched by outstretched arms pleading desperately for alms. I literally did not know what to do.
I watched my local friends, who were Ethiopian men and women in their early twenties, as they moved through the crowd. Their tan skin did not prevent them from being approached as alms-givers themselves. As I watched, they would walk un-phased through the crowds, stopping to speak with one, touching another, giving a few coins here and there. There was no apparent reason dictating where they stopped and to whom they gave.
Later I asked how they decided where to disperse their own limited funds. The answer was simple. “We pray. We stop, and we give when we feel we should. Otherwise we move on and do not worry.”
They understood a divine principle I had yet to learn. There is too much need in this world and each of us has limited resources available to us. None of us is capable of satisfying the needs of the whole world, but we can all do what we can. And so we pray, we discern, we evaluate our gifts, skills and talents, and then we decide to use our resources in the way that we believe will do the most good in the world.
Ethiopia taught me firsthand the depth of humanity’s virtually unlimited need. My shallow pocketbook reminded me that I live in a world with limited resources.
Because of this reality, there will always be scarcity, or a lack of what is required “to satisfy every need” people experience here on earth (Dlabay, Burrow, and Keindl, Principles of Business, 2017, p. 12).
Inevitably, scarcity dictates that we will never be able to purchase everything we wish for every time we wish it, nor to give to every charitable cause we believe in.
Our dollars represent a limited number of votes with which we purchase or contribute that which offers the highest degree of value according to our hierarchy of needs.
Like it or not, corporations possess enormous power and wield great influence.
They influence our governance by the candidates they support and the issues they lobby. They impact our environment in the way they consume natural resources and care for waste. They shape our choices with the products they offer and the way they market. They generate economy with the jobs they create and the wages they do (or do not) pay.
When we purchase products from a corporation that utilizes slave, child, indentured, or sweat labor or pollutes the environment to produce its goods, we are endorsing their practices and enabling their power to continue unchecked.
Every purchasing decision we make casts a vote for the kind of world in which we wish to live, based upon the entities we choose to support with our votes.
The good news is that consumers hold even MORE power than corporations. No company, no matter how large, can continue to exist apart from a regular diet of silver and gold served up on a platter of demand.
As consumers, we create this demand. Every time we vote with our dollar, we demonstrate our desire for more of a particular good or service, regardless of how it is produced. If we reduce our demand, that product or service will decline in production. If we increase our demand, supply will respond accordingly.
When we demand products that protect the environment and adhere to ethical labor standards, we are demanding more from companies. We are demanding justice for the planet and justice for people.
Similar to voting in a political election, it requires many voices demanding the same thing in order to achieve the result we hope for, but it is possible!
The cocoa industry exemplifies the power consumers have to leverage a more just world.
Over 2 million children in West Africa currently work illegally to supply two-thirds of the world’s cocoa. Chances are, the last time many of us enjoyed a chocolate bar, sipped a mocha, or enjoyed a gooey brownie, our sweet treat was made possible because of a teenager who spent their day wielding a machete instead of attending school.
Despite two decades of commitments to eradicate child and slave labor from supply chains, cocoa companies such as Nestle, Mars, and M&M have failed to do so because they are not being held accountable. There are literally no consequences, no fines, no law-suits, and no impact to their bottom line for failing to do the right thing.
This is where consumers in the UK decided to step up. The UK has the highest population of consumers demanding fair trade chocolate. Because of their advocacy and committed boycott of slave-made chocolate, chocolate lovers in the UK have achieved the Fair Trade Kit Kat bar produced by Nestle. Nestle was losing enough profits from their UK-based sales to give consumers what they were asking for. They have not needed to do this in neighboring Germany nor in the United States.
The Fair Trade Kit Kat illustrates the power we hold as consumers. When we make a collective decision to vote with our dollar in support of fair trade -- a decision that results in boycotting unethical companies and supporting ethical ones -- companies will be forced to either make a positive change or lose profits. History demonstrates that they do not wish to lose profits, therefore, they must find a way to improve supply chains.
As consumers, we have power and we must use it wisely. United States citizens will purportedly spend $1 trillion this year on Christmas gifts. That is $1 trillion votes cast for the kind of world we want to live in. Let’s vote together for a world that prioritizes People and Planet so we ALL Profit!
Photos and Article by: Sarah Ray, all rights reserved, 2019