For young adults, charity is generally viewed as an invisible act, something you might do but not want to advertise. We don't tweet about our charitable donations, and you wouldn't wear your Susan B. Komen 5K Turkey Trot T-shirt out with friends at a bar at night. It would feel ostentatious and, among friends, ridiculously self-promoting.
Charities, however, are beginning to grasp the new movement that has sprung up among young adults who want to define themselves and their future through associations with the brands they wear or possess. With the creation of products that are well-designed, brilliantly marketed and linked to a charitable cause, you can wear the T-shirt because it's cool, not for the cause it promotes.
Instead of buying a Fendi bag, brand-savvy consumers might purchase FEED bags, which feed one child in Africa for a year with each bag sold. Associating the commercial with the charitable gives the product another dimension making its purchase more conscious and purposeful. This is just one example of a product related to a charitable cause that is gaining market share by telling a cool, compelling story. By contrast, the old nonprofit model is based upon guilt, shaming the consumer into donating to the cause.
It is not, after all, a very new idea that what you wear signals who you are and what you envisage for yourself in the future. Crusaders wore crosses on their chest and Bolsheviks wore the hammer and sickle. Orthodox Jews have peyes (uncut sideburns) and kippot. The Orange revolution in the Ukraine, the Purple finger in Iraq, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, all used color to represent the change they wanted to see in their country.
Whether we like it or not, America is a consumer culture, in which people define themselves by what they purchase. If you are wearing Christian Louboutin and Gucci while wheeling around in an Aston Martin in Los Angeles, you are telling a story about your aspirations for yourself, not very different from the person wearing Christian Audigier, Dolce & Gabbana and driving an Escalade on the Jersey Shore. We all like to think that we acquire the virtues and values of the products we obtain. Your BMW makes you feel more accomplished, smoother, more stylish, a connoisseur of finer things. And possessing things like that may even motivate you to become more like the values and virtues you think they embody.
Traditional for-profit brands have long ago understood the power of brand associations. Take Nike, for instance. Nike has drenched themselves in Michael Jordan since the late 1980s, not only because he is the greatest basketball player of all time and a divinely gifted athlete, but also an because he is an impeccable professional and a champion of fair-play. In short: The Best. Nike, by creating a brand so closely tied to Jordan, sought to appropriate his excellence and his aura of being the very best. Jordan wears Nike, and Jordan is the greatest; ergo Nike must be the greatest as well. Lebron James. Kobe Bryant. Christian Ronaldo. Wash, rinse, repeat. We reinforce these messages to one another, doubling down on the perceived higher social value gained by a pair of new Nike kicks.
This notion of brand appropriation is why I don't mind "greenwashing", that is, when companies heavily promote in their core marketing message small acts that are supposed to be saving the planet. Sure, I know that Nestle is being ridiculous when it touts the 15 percent less plastic used in their bottles. I am aware that Starbucks goes through roughly 2.3 billion paper cups a year and advertises its national award for using cups made of 10 percent recycled material. The sleeves on the cups even plead, "Help us help the planet." But what demographic, who are active consumers of the message "Green Is Good," might miss the hypocrisy of these claims? Young people. Young people who begin recycling. Young people who make their parents turn the lights off when leaving the house and conserve water. And as these consumers age, they may well become more demanding of the products they consume, collectively pushing the bar higher for personal and corporate responsibility.
A few nonprofits and benevolent businesses are changing the game in a major way. By making cool products that give kids a higher perceived social value, they are indirectly transforming the next generation of young adults into much more humanely conscious consumers.
A real revolution can begin with something you wear. When you put on your GreenLaces, shoelaces made from recycled plastic, you might give a thought to the environment. You may feel a similar sense of compassion when you buy a pair of Tom's Shoes, knowing that every pair of shoes Toms sells means they'll give a pair away to a child in need. Take the impact on a high-school student of purchasing an Invisible Children T-shirt versus a Quicksilver T-shirt. These shirts cost the same and both have a great design, but one is from a for-profit surfing lifestyle brand, and the other is from a nonprofit trying to end the longest running war in Africa through a grassroots movement supported in part by money made off of the same T-shirt. Invisible Children makes you part of the movement, and allows you to tell yourself and others a specific story, one that connects you to the solution of one of the world's problems. Why would you want simply to associate yourself with surf or hip-hop culture, when you could become part of a movement that is changing the world for real?
Although it takes a lot of criticism in the nonprofit space, Tom's Shoes will give away its millionth shoe in 2010. Tom's isn't a nonprofit, yet people tend to think that it is. Giving shoes away, after all, won't solve the problems of developing nations. But ask yourself this: Would the same people who purchase Toms Shoes and Invisible Children T-shirts take that disposable spending money, and donate it directly to charity if it wasn't for the product? For a large percentage of young adults that support these brands and the causes they represent, the answer is no. They probably wouldn't otherwise donate anything, but now they not only support a cause, but end up educating a bunch of their peers about causes they might never have heard of.
It may be a dream to imagine that a business would prefer a slightly smaller profit margin in favor of having a higher purpose, creating a great product, taking care of one's employees, and positively impacting the planet. But why not take positive steps to champion these nonprofit and benevolent businesses? This is the birth of a new world, where your dollars can act as catalysts to accomplish the change that we want to see in the world. This is the birth of a marketplace where the brands we support will be in line with the values we advocate. We must support these nonprofits and companies that are working to make the world a better place and giving others the tools to become part of the movement.
This is a symphony, that begins with strings. Slowly building: FEED Projects. Invisible Children. Livestrong. Falling Whistles. Charity:Water. To Write Love on Her Arms. Method Cleaning Products. GreenLaces. Toms Shoes. One Mango Tree. The Holster Project. Nau. PACT.
The crescendo will come when all products that we consume are in step with the absolute morality of being good citizens of the world, buying products that support not only profit and growth, but do right by the people who create the products and by the environment. We the consumer must demand this of our products, and until we do, we will continue to support the current linear consumption model operating destructively on a planet with finite resources.
This is only the beginning. Let's blast off into a new paradigm of what it means to be cool, a world where the highest consumer value is inseparable from the highest social good.
Follow Jeff Rosenthal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Jbrosenthal