As a consumer, what fuels your buying decisions? Do you help others because it makes you feel good? Is it all about that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you’ve made an impact? I can say with certainty that I’ve made an impulse buy (or twelve) in my lifetime thanks to a “one for one” marketing campaign. As a child of the 90’s that grew up in an evangelical Christian home, I had shirts for just about every issue out there so the world would know my midwestern conservative stance on society, which has since shifted. Since the rise of TOMS and the hundreds of other brands that are adopting this charitable business model, I think I’ve become even more skeptical of giving. But on top of that, it’s combined forces with the Kickstarter “what’s in it for me?” principle of giving. If I’m not getting a deal to support your big idea, then I’m out. I’m starting to rant, I know. Here’s where this is all coming from.
I recently visited the flagship store of Miir, a Seattle-based company that is fighting for clean water across the world through the sale of bikes, bottles, and a coffee shop/ tap room hybrid. When I walked into the flagship store, there were beautiful bikes hanging on the walls next to artistic displays of finely-designed growlers and accessories to attach to your cool bike for your cool commute to cool places. The back of the venue was a clearly-defined education space, where people could learn about coffee processes or attend an information session about clean water efforts in Uganda. It was a social justice sanctuary, serving up craft beers and speciality coffee in a way that I can only describe as a glimpse of heaven. So when I saw the insulated bottle in matte black, my urge to get involved reached a new level. As I sat down on the couch with my coffee, I immediately started questioning myself.
“Don’t do it Nathan. You will fall to consumerism yet again, and you’ll be just like the rest of them. You have a water bottle. A few of them actually. Why another?”
And then, the counterpart to this opinion.
“Nathan, you’re a branding guy. You support good people doing good things all of the time. This is something you will use daily, share out to your friends, and become a part of. Just join their community. It’s 30 bucks. Big whoop. Don’t forget, it’s matte black. You LOVE matte black.”
This is the part of my writing where I am supposed to tell you what you should do in situations like this. If you got to this post through social media, then it may have included a one-liner like “5 Ways to Align Your Spending to Your Heart” or “Drink Good. Do Good. Be Good.” Words for the win. But to be honest, I often roll my eyes at the writers with all the answers. I’ve really just got lots of questions, but will let you attempt to answer them for yourself. As for me, the matte black bottle is a part of my everyday carry outfit, and I’ve spent hours on the Miir website reading up on their clean water efforts, which hit close to home after getting rocked by a few kids I met at an orphanage in Kampala several years ago. Social enterprise can shift brand perceptions, but I stand firmly that I won’t buy a bag of stale coffee just because a few cents will help someone in need. There are coffee providers around the world providing fair wages and local economies in some of the poorest regions of the world with the finest coffee crops available. I will no longer buy a pair of temporarily functional shoes with a 6-7 month lifespan and the smell of wet cat after a single rainstorm. But I definitely did just 5 years ago. There is no guilt necessary, it’s just not a part of my present story. What I will do is buy a sturdy, well-designed bottle that I can carry with me every day, while happening to support a brand that wants to do something bigger than themselves. I think where I’ve landed can be summarized in a single statement. I will buy into your product for it’s craft well before it’s cause. Being a humanitarian, non-profit, or charity-centric business does not give you a valid excuse to lack excellence. Craftsmanship over cause. When you do both, you’ve found the combination that unlocks my wallet and my network of influence.
Every good post needs a list of takeaways, right? Fine. Here you go.
- Clean water matters. We take it for granted, which is a blessing in itself. Quality coffee and beer begins with great water. So love on it. See what brands like Miir and charity:water are doing to create sustainable change around the world.
- Challenge your own way of thinking. No one ever changed their opinion because of a Facebook comment battle and most of us aren’t willing to budge when our worldview is established. Start asking yourself “why” more often. I’d suggest doing it in the morning or afternoon rather than right before bed. You’ll thank me later.
- Intentionality and self awareness is a game-changer. Not everything you do has to be for “a cause”. Sometimes I’ll drop a few extra dollars at an establishment just because it’s a fun experience, or because I like to be around the people that work there. No guilt there. Just be real about the “why’s” behind your decisions. And stick to them, even when your rad hipster friend says you’re doing it all wrong.
- If you drink the Kool-Aid, be sure to know the ingredients. There is nothing more disheartening than approaching someone sporting the same shirt or touting a “cause-oriented” sticker on their laptop, only to find out they have no clue what it’s about beyond a neat design or a trend as seen on an influencer’s Instagram account. These are the real culprits of the social justice disasters that exist. Finely crafted social good endures the latest trends.
photo of Miir flagship from photographer Melanie Biehle.