Should the works of mercy come with free swag?

Is shopping the best way to practice acts of charity?
Peace & Justice

“Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply an economic—act,” said Pope Francis, quoting from Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). But what happens when purchasing is the only thing keeping our morals in check?

That’s the reality of the philanthropic trend known as “compassionate consumerism,” a charitable giving model that allows people to be socially conscious while also acquiring a material good. For instance, the shoe company TOMS donates money to charitable causes using funds from consumer purchases. Products featuring the pink ribbon sometimes support breast cancer foundations. (RED) products claim to contribute funding to AIDS research. While these feel-good purchases aren’t necessarily bad, they do beg the question of how Catholics should best practice acts of charity.

David Cloutier, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America, says that Pope Francis has vividly communicated that the best way to be truly charitable is by face-to-face encounter with those who are struggling—and preferably in our own communities.

“Whenever possible, we should be charitable in and through organizations that embed us in genuine solidarity with others in need,” Cloutier says. “I joke sometimes that the best way for a busy person to be charitable is to move to a poorer neighborhood. Your community will be right there at your door.”


He says our biggest worry about charitable consumerism should be whether the donation actually does the good intended. For example, some companies tout giveaways of their products to people in faraway countries. Giveaways often have a perverse effect, he says. They compete with local producers and hamper the development of companies in the poor countries themselves.

“I think we have to be honest and ask whether we are giving permission to ourselves to fall into consumerism by telling ourselves it’s OK because we are adding in a little dose of charity,” Cloutier says. “Still, it is a good thing that people are thinking about others as they buy. I hope we can deepen our understanding of how to do that well.”

While there’s not necessarily shame in buying a pair of TOMS, this kind of purchase can open doors to even greater charitable opportunities. We checked out five popular consumer charities and dug up tips on how to further your post-purchase impact on each cause and, as Cloutier recommends, deepen your understanding of how to purchase well.

Poverty Relief
You bought a pair of TOMS shoes.

How you justified the purchase You recently got caught in the rain wearing the canvas slip-ons you’ve been meaning to replace. You thought about swapping them for slip-ons that are weatherproof so this won’t happen again, but you just got an email from TOMS about a 20-percent-off sale. TOMS’ “One for One” model makes them the most ethical shoe you know of, so you go ahead and place an order. You’ll just remember to never wear them when it rains.


The cause It’s safe to say the company’s primary charitable cause is poverty, though TOMS has a pretty long list of causes for a company many assume only cares about feet. The for-profit business that markets itself like a charity was founded in 2006 by entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, who, while traveling in Argentina, says he witnessed hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. His solution: create a for-profit, financially sustainable business that does not rely on donations. Most people are familiar with TOMS’ “One for One” model—with every product you purchase, the company says it will “help a person in need.”

At first glance, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the specific type of help per purchase is since the company’s products and charitable interests have expanded well beyond shoes and shoe-giving. TOMS says it helps people in a variety of ways by providing shoes, eye care, clean water, safe birth, and bullying prevention services by way of its “giving partners”—the nonprofits the company donates to and works with to distribute shoes, glasses, or other care around the globe. While the company’s attention to these causes surely attracts earnest buyers, the downside of a TOMS purchase is that it’s tricky to figure out how much of your shoes’ proceeds go directly to poverty relief.

What else you can do Funding global poverty relief organizations is your best bet if you’re interested in any of TOMS’ favorite causes. Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Footsteps in Faith monthly giving program funds long-term sustainable solutions to meet people’s most basic needs around the world. Receiving a high rating from nonprofit-vetter Charity Navigator, CRS works to meet immediate needs for food, clean water, and health care so that long-term needs like jobs, infrastructure, and education can finally become the central focus. In other words, CRS knows that a pair of shoes isn’t so helpful when you don’t have clean water to drink. Last year, with funds from Footsteps in Faith, CRS provided prenatal care for 387,000 women, one term of school lunches for 48,000 children, and postemergency shelters for 26,000 families. So get moving—you’ve already got the shoes for it.

Cancer Awareness and Treatment
You bought a pink ribbon charm bracelet.

How you justified the purchase You know plenty of people affected by breast cancer, so this is a good way to show your support. Plus, a portion of your purchase went toward a breast cancer charity. What’s the harm?


The cause Beauty supply companies like Avon often sell plenty of items adorned with the pink ribbon. These pink items can raise awareness of the existence of breast cancer when worn publicly, and sometimes a portion of the proceeds fund breast cancer charities. But not all items with the pink ribbon donate to a cause—or, at least, do the sort of good you might have intended.

Gayle Sulik, a medical sociologist and author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health (Oxford University Press) writes that breast cancer now effectively functions as a brand name with a pink ribbon logo from which companies can profit. While buying pink paraphernalia may seem like a helpful move, Sulik cites studies that indicate that while pink products have brought attention to breast cancer advocacy, they have not drastically improved women’s health. Since the pink ribbon gained popularity in the 1980s among companies campaigning to end breast cancer, 40,000 women continue to die from the disease every year. The pink ribbon culture, she writes, has primarily focused its attention and resources on awareness and early detection instead of on the search for and an awareness of the causes of breast cancer—particularly environmental and social factors.

What else you can do If you’d like to expand beyond awareness for a disease with which 2 in 5 American women are diagnosed annually, you have options beyond the pink ribbon. Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a national grassroots organization that launched the Think Before You Pink campaign, has been skeptical of pink gear for more than 20 years. Executives there say some charities spend millions to promote ineffective screenings or empty awareness campaigns but not enough on actual scientific research.

BCA recommends volunteering for or giving directly to a breast cancer organization that doesn’t take money from any pink product-selling companies who, they say, end up profiting from the disease. As Gayle Sulik says in the introduction to her book, “The discussion here is designed to motivate people to cut through the rhetoric and hype to see what breast cancer organizations and other women’s health groups are really working toward.”

HIV/AIDS Treatment and Prevention
You bought a (RED) brand item.

How you justified the purchase You’re in the market for a new iPhone and recognize the (RED) logo on the back of the sleek new device on display. You’re going to get a new iPhone whether it’s red or not, so the proceeds might as well go to a charity.

The cause Red—styled (PRODUCT)RED or (RED)—was created in 2006 by U2 front man Bono and activist Bobby Shriver to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and make it easier for people to contribute to the cause. Red products are often the color—you guessed it—red or feature the (RED) logo. You’ve likely seen them at the Apple Store, Starbucks, and the Gap, and the products range from iPhones to baby bibs to Dutch ovens. Up to 50 percent of profits from consumer sales go directly to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.


But the retailers don’t necessarily reveal how much they donate to the cause (Apple, for instance, does not advertise what percentage of each Red iPhone sale is donated). And while the Red organization does not disclose how much its partner companies profit from selling Red products, the organization does say it has generated $465 million in donations to The Global Fund.

What else you can do If you like the cause but don’t need a new iPhone (or cheese grater or vacuum cleaner), you can donate directly to Red—no purchase necessary. But if your main concern is showing solidarity and support for those suffering, one of the best things you can do is be present to them. Those suffering from HIV/AIDS often receive distant support due to stigma and fear, so if you purchase a Red product, choose to also show solidarity in person. Plenty of organizations offer opportunities to volunteer time at local HIV/AIDS treatment centers, and you don’t have to be a professional counselor or health care worker to do so. For instance, the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix offers volunteer opportunities for musicians to fill its hallways with therapeutic music.


Want to volunteer but wouldn’t know what to say? Passionist Father Robin Ryan says in his book God and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Paulist Press) that sometimes people tend to speak in platitudes to those who are suffering rather than simply sitting with them, which he recommends. So instead of saying something like “God has a plan for everyone,” show solidarity by offering a physical presence and a set of listening ears.

Care of the Environment
You bought a reusable tote bag.

How you justified the purchase The cashier politely asks, “paper or plastic?” You cringe. You forgot your tote bag! You debate wasting a plastic bag, but then you spot the new reusable satchel screen-printed with a smiling avocado hanging beside the cashier stand. It’s only $1. You have some (Five? Nine?) reusable bags at home, but you could always use another. You buy the bag and start filling it with groceries.

The cause You’re maybe reducing waste. We say maybe because in 2008 the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study on various bags: paper, plastic, and cotton. The authors of the study found that in order to be environmentally friendly, on average paper bags need to be used three times, polyethylene bags (the typical plastic bags at grocery stores) need to be used four times, nonwoven polypropylene bags (your typical reusable bag) must be used at least 11 times, and a cotton canvas bag must be used at least 131 times. Also notable is that the classic thin plastic grocery bags had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags and paper bags actually have a higher carbon footprint since they create more byproducts when they’re made. The study also says that reusing any type of bag for shopping or as trash bin liners is pivotal and produces greater benefits than recycling bags. So in order to make your reusable bag have a positive impact, you’ve got to remember to actually use it again and again and again.

What else you can do Robert Lilienfeld, author of Use Less Stuff (Ballantine Books) writes that the focus on environmentally friendly grocery bags is a distraction from real environmental issues at hand—like what’s inside the bag. Since a reusable bag accounts for only about 1 or 2 percent of your grocery purchase’s environmental impact, it’s important to also examine your overall food waste.


The nonprofit Ad Council recently kicked off a national campaign targeting this very issue and launched, where you can find recipes that use up perishable items you might otherwise throw out (like sour milk). The campaign has plastered billboard facts around major cities in an effort to dispel myths about “expired” food.

Want to tell your friends? Environmental action groups like Catholic Climate Covenant help anyone form a Creation Care Team within a parish, workplace, or school. Creation Care Teams help transform your community to be, in Pope Francis’ words, “protectors of God’s gifts.” Visit for tips on how to form your team.

Economic Justice
You bought a fair trade T-shirt.

How you justified the purchase The Fair Trade-certified T-shirt was the obvious choice on your window-shopping-turned-actual-shopping trip to the Patagonia store, even though you’re not exactly sure to whom your shirt is being so fair.

The cause Fair Trade USA—the United States’ most dominant fair trade certifier—says it enforces rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards that help U.S. companies and their international suppliers promote good working conditions, protect the environment, and empower local businesses. Patagonia, for instance, says it pays a premium for every Fair Trade-certified item that carries its label. That extra money goes directly to the workers at the factory who make it, and then they decide how to spend it. Patagonia says workers in one Sri Lankan factory used funds to open a daycare center that provides factory workers with free child care, implement a health and sanitation program, and pay for sanitary napkins and undergarments to improve individual hygiene. The participating factories also have to uphold certain health and safety standards and never employ children. offers a complete list of companies that offer some certified products—among them brands like Starbucks, Athleta, and West Elm.

What else you can do This one’s more of a what can you not do. Just because you want to support social justice doesn’t mean you have to go shopping. The fair trade movement, while offering clearly outlined benefits for factory workers and farmers, still relies on consumerism to create change. And although mindful purchasing is certainly better than ignorance, consumers should be wary of using shopping as a primary means of charity. Pope Francis warns in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) that since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless spending. “A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment,” he writes. But Francis also says that there is always an opportunity to address the social conditioning that enables modern-day consumerism. “Human beings,” he writes, “while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

This article also appears in the July 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 7, pages 12–17).