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Slacktivism may do more harm than good

By in Opinions


The Fulcrum (University of Ottawa)


OTTAWA (CUP) — Worldwide, we’d be wise to start actively participating in causes that we support as opposed to halfheartedly showing our support over social media.

As 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? Inquiry into this issue has suggested a resounding no. The fact is that much more good would come from students simply making more conscientious spending decisions.

You might recognize slacktivism 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 in a statement to CTV News.

The Swedish division of the United Nations Children’s Fund shared such sentiment, running a campaign called “Likes Don’t Save Lives” earlier this year featuring an unnamed 10-year-old orphan speaking to the camera.

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

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 concept. The principle behind the idea — that you can promote change by supporting only companies that follow ethical practices — comes from the foundation of capitalism: 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. According to a 2010 study by Abacus Data, an Ottawa public opinion and marketing research firm, fifty-eight per cent of Canadians consider themselves ethical spenders.

But according to the 2008 Statistics Canada General Social Survey, only 28 per cent of Canadians aged 20 – 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 is one way to make a statement on more ethical practices to coffee giants such as Starbucks and Tim Horton’s — 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-themed 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, a huge portion of the 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste generated worldwide each year can be traced to 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.

  • Oscar the Groucho

    “Voting with your money” implies that to care about something is to spend money on it. That the poor, or those who don’t engage fulling with a commercial system have no right to a voice.

    Moreover this whole post misses the point that most of the people doing the liking were doing nothing prior to social media either. Now they’re a better educated motionless mass.

    But they’ll galvanise in time as the active activists spark the tinder of revolt.

    And buying Starbucks fair-trade roast is not ethical – its a company that giving any money to simply keeps in business. They support land grabs for starters.

    All that said though, the conclusion of the article and some of the advice towards the end is sound.

  • angry foodie

    Oh ethical comsumerism. No really, I wish our in-house writers here wrote as well as this fellow does.

    Truth is, some causes (ie: third world poverty) are not easily dealt with. You expect BComm or MBA students whose entire training is derived around flicking pieces of paper around and profiteering off of third-world labor to really care about true ethical consumerism? So-called “fair-trade coffee” is no different. Or the sugar industry, oh boy, that’s a bad one! Never mind the chocolate business!

    Even the poor among us are very fortunate. They have opportunities a plantation worker in Ghana or Dominican Republic may never have. They can educate themselves. They can make good personal decisions. They can increase their lot in life very easily.

    There is a niche market for ethical consumerism. I don’t see it growing hugely. Such a market would either have grossly inflated prices OR it would have to chip into the earnings of our future business leaders.

    I won’t hold my breath for either happening soon. The rich don’t want to re-distribute their income. (A euphemism for “they don’t want to take a cut in earnings to pay the people their business relies on living wages.”)

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