03/05/2012 03:49 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Choosing Justice: We Can't Consume Our Way to a Better World

Sometimes I feel like corporations think we can consume our way to a better world. If we only buy the right (green/local/organic/fair trade) products, we will make things better. Or we buy something and it makes a donation to a cause. What a bargain! I got to take something home and someone else got helped. Those decisions are important -- it is still important to buy a fair trade product and know that someone was actually (shockingly) paid a living wage for your morning luxury item. But buying fair trade (or green or organic) is not in and of itself a mitzvah. These buying choices reinforce the pervasive idea that we are consumers above all else, and so, to effect societal change, we have to spend money.

To some degree, we reinforce this when we give tzedakah: We feed someone who is hungry, rather than attacking the root cause of hunger. We spend money to help the causes we care about the most. But we can't spend our way to a more just society, even if we gave every last penny to tzedakah. We have to be activists for justice.

Tzedek (justice) is not the same as tzedakah (charity). If you look at the websites of many corporations, they have a section dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They tout the ability of their employees to volunteer, the millions of dollars in funds they give away, and the products they donate. These acts allow the companies to see themselves as "giving back to the community." The donations they make have an impact on real lives. But they are not corporate social responsibility. After all, the highest rung of Maimonides ladder of tzedakah is allowing people to be self-sufficient, and many of the same corporations are involved in paying low wages, busting unions, and polluting the environment.

Whether you see these companies corporate social responsibility as a cynical attempt to divert attention from root causes of poverty or whether you give them the benefit of the doubt (and I do both, depending on the day) companies need to be taught that we expect tzedek first and tzedakah second.

I see this directly in my work on slavery and human trafficking. Slavery is a nasty word. No company wants to be associated with it, and many are increasingly willing to audit their supply chains to make sure there are no slave made goods (this is the root of the new law in California, the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act). Transparency and third party monitoring is critical in the fight against slavery because it makes corporations take responsibility for their products. But fewer corporations are willing to go further than just transparency and deal with root causes. Slavery, after all, is the extreme end of a continuum of labor abuses and extremely low wages. To truly end slavery, we have to be willing to fight poverty, and few corporations are willing to acknowledge their role in creating or sustaining poverty. That is why Rabbis for Human Rights-North America's major partner in fighting domestic slavery is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their campaign for justice in Florida's tomato fields. They end slavery by raising wages and creating a code of conduct for employers: through tzedek and not just tzedakkah.

This is a model we have to embrace as ourselves as well. We must make ethical buying choices because it is the right thing to do. But we can't end there. We must raise our voices and tell the corporations that we will not eat or wear the products of exploitation. It's hard. It's paralyzing. It's exhausting. And it is what tzedek really is.

Originally published by Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas as "Choosing Justice."