Stating the obvious: An introduction to slacktivism

Can we buy our way out of poverty?

That was the headline for the Vivid ideas exchange event I attended yesterday, as part of the Vivid Sydney festival. For those that don't know about it, Vivid is major three week long Sydney event where colourful lights are blasted on to iconic buildings around the city, making them dance to esoteric soundtracks. 

The 'Vivid Ideas' event, hosted discreetly by Huddle (A community minded insurance company) was filled with a crowd of... Let's just say, if the crowd was bread it would be a bespoke organic sour dough from Sydney's upper-middle-left-leaven suburbs.

There were three panel speakers. A reasonably unprepared, but clearly passionate, James Dunlop from Oxfam Australia, Dr Stuart Palmer, Head of Ethics at Australian Ethical (superannuation fund) and 'reformed fashionista' Clare Press, of Wardrobe crisis.

There was also beer and representation from 4 Pines brewing Co. I didn't at all mind having a couple of kolshes at midday (Don't be judgey with me, they are a certified B corp after all).

So... Can we buy our way out of poverty?

Short answer: I'm still not sure.

We certainly can't hope to, if we don't get a concrete answer from a room full of like-minds and industry leading business representatives. 

The vague conclusions made by the panel was typical of these kinds of events and conferences. Powerful and responsibly-minded organisations keep telling everyone how their organisation is empowering change. Through their various collaborations and projects they have provided water to such and such village, or micro-financed a group of women to do something cute like 'basket making for a fair wage'.

Dr Stuart Palmer of Australian Ethical was the only speaker who had a good crack at answering the question, and associating real world examples of Australian Ethical's spending decisions and how they effect poverty... He used the example of their investment in TESLA being challenged by the fact that Cobalt (used to make batteries) is often mined in conflict zones of the Congo. 
He told us not to punish ourselves for being perfect when it comes to conscious consumption. Instead, like Australian Ethical does, we must focus on being GOOD. Because perfect production and perfect products and perfect people are a myth.


Still not answering the question however because the 'we' in this discussion isn't your CSR team, it's my neighbour Wayne, the everyday consumer. 

Hearing about how Big Business does good can be nice. Don't get me wrong. But it won't actually provide any practical tools or advice to everyday people, to understand the impact of their consumer behaviour on millions of less fortunate others around the world. We'll get a big pat on the back for buying our organic, fairtrade, conflict free bespoke tea cosy from the Oxfam shop. Literally being rewarded for our contribution. But if we really wanted to make a difference,

Why don't we just donate the same amount of money to Oxfam

This 'I deserve recognition' mentality is precisely why so many businesses are using socially and environmentally responsible initiatives to greenwash their image. On an individual level, our slacktivist ego will inflate when we participate in a fun-run, faux famine or retail scenario that makes us feel like we are doing something. Something that we can share on social media or get a thank you 'gift' for. 

In the last few moments of the panel discussion Claire Press gracefully pointed out a big hole in the days' discussion, urging the room to consider whether events like this are simply "preaching to the converted"? Yes Claire, they are. They are if the speakers don't embrace the opportunity to offer advice to the educated and motivated audience who have travelled, paid and taken time to see them. 

In my mind, the outcome of an impassioned conversation about 'Buying our way out of Poverty' should be focused on helping people to make informed decisions about what they buy. By "others" I mean the Helgas, the Tip-Tops and the Light Rye Cobs.

Specifically, the 'everyday Australians' who simply don't have the resources (time, disposable cash for event tickets, motivation or education) to care or effect change. The single parents who simply need to clothe their kids and don't care if the school uniforms are made from organic cotton. The pensioner who can't walk to the shops can't be expected to get a taxi across town to buy organic groceries.

But those people in the room at this particular event (including myself) have the ability to set up grass-roots services for organic food delivery, encourage industry reform in uniform manufacturing or tell their mates that it is possible to get cost-effective, high quality clothing that will last, instead of cheap fall-apart bargain bin stuff.

So what do you think: 

Can or has our consumer behaviour directly effected impoverished people?