News10 QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE BUYING DONATION PRODUCTS
More than 4 million people shared pictures of their pets under an Instagram sticker that claimed to plant a tree for every photo. This seemed suspect, and eventually Patrick Marlborough did a deep dive and posted what he found on Twitter.
The sticker was posted by a company called Plant a Tree Co, likely a scam, that sells cheap jewellery and claims to make donations from sales to a variety of good causes, as well as planting a tree for each item.
Marlborough went down a rabbit hole. We’ve all done the same from time to time, but it’s exhausting trying to do that kind of due diligence every time you buy something. So, here’s my list of easy questions to ask to help you avoid spending your hard-earned cash on something like this.
WHAT ARE FUNDRAISING OR DONATION PRODUCTS?
Fundraising or donation products are those that claim to fund worthy causes. They can be a fantastic way of lending support.
They’re also an easy trap. Verifying the credentials of every company you buy from is very difficult, so what questions should we ask? These are all questions you should be able to answer from the webpages for the product: no deep dive required!
1. IS THIS A PRODUCT THAT I WOULD OTHERWISE BUY?
A great category of donation products are those that you’d buy anyway. They allow us to make our usual purchases but use that buying power to support good causes.
I used to buy toilet roll from the supermarket – it’s wrapped in plastic and is most likely produced from timber grown in huge relatively-slow growing plantations that prompt the clearance of more diverse ecosystems; all the profit goes to the shareholders of the company that owns the toilet roll brand.
I swapped to Who Gives a Crap, a company that offers 100% recycled toilet roll, and roll made from bamboo (which is faster growing so requires a smaller land area). It’s a donation product because 50% of profits go to charities that provide toilets and clean water to people who need them. Don't worry, this isn't an ad.
If, like my toilet roll example, you’d buy the product whether it was ‘green’ or not, you probably feel slightly less pressure to check out the background to every claim the company makes. There are still some important questions to ask though; I’ll come back to the loo roll later.
2. IF I WOULDN’T OTHERWISE BUY IT, AM I WILLING TO JUST DONATE INSTEAD?
This is an incredibly privileged question but hear me out. If you wouldn’t otherwise buy the product, consider whether you’d be willing to forgo the product itself and make a direct donation to a registered charity that you trust.
Of course, giving money away is not something that everyone can do. Many people will buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy and want to support the good fight with that purchase but need to see something for their spend.
However, many fundraising purchases are for items that I think some buyers would forgo if they considered it.
Take 4Ocean. This is a company that pulls rubbish out of the ocean and sells plastic (and, more recently, glass) bracelets to fund that work. There are some elements of this that need a closer look, but the first consideration is: do you really want that plastic bracelet?
3. AM I BUYING FROM A CHARITY, NON-PROFIT, OR A PRIVATE COMPANY?
This is important in setting the scene. In most countries, charities must be registered and are subject to strict requirements in terms of their behaviour and provision of information about their operations. Those rules are in place to protect the donating public and to ensure charitable funds are properly used.
Non-profits have several possible legal structures, but in most cases are not subject to the same rules as charities, so have a lower level of regulation. They are prevented by their own constitution from extracting profit from the operations of the company.
Private companies, or for-profit companies, are your regular run-of-the-mill corporations. Profit is extracted from the business for the benefit of shareholders. The existence of shareholders requires a desire to make a profit, even if other values are genuinely held.
There’s nothing wrong with buying from a for-profit that sells green products and donates to charity, but you need to go into the purchase with your eyes open: if you’re buying from a for-profit, a large proportion of your money will go to corporate shareholders, not your charitable cause. Of our examples, both Who Gives a Crap and 4Ocean are private companies.
4. HOW MUCH WILL GO TO THE CHARITABLE CAUSE?
An obvious question but often overlooked: how much of the proceeds from your purchase makes it to the cause?
The example that sticks in my mind is Children in Need products in supermarkets. I’m gratified to see on the Asda website that the % donation for current products is more like 20% of the cost of the product, but I remember picking up everything from watches to T-shirts and reading labels that said ’20 pence from the sale of this product will go to Children in Need’.
Let’s go back to the loo roll. 50% of profits go to those toilet and water charities. It’s important to distinguish revenue from profit. In the Children in Need example, 20% of the cost to the consumer (i.e., of the revenue) went to charity. Profit is what’s left over after all the costs of the business are accounted for, so a % of profit will be much lower than an equivalent % of revenue. 50% of the revenue the company makes from my purchase of a box of loo roll is about £18 but 50% of the profit may well be pennies.
Also, to be cynical, it’s easy to divert most of the revenue to costs (e.g. by increasing the salaries of the leaders of the company) such that the profit (from which the donation needs to be taken) is much smaller than you might expect; it's not as easy to manipulate revenue commitments in this way.
To counteract this risk, you can see if the company provides details about the amount donated per product (this will often be a minimum amount or a banding, to allow for changing costs).
Now let’s go back to the ocean bracelets. 4Ocean claim that the sale of their bracelets funds the removal of trash from the ocean, but they’ve only committed to donating 1% of their profits to that cause (profit, not revenue). Research by Alicia Green suggests that 4Ocean donate only 0.25-3% of their profits to the cause.
How much the percentages matter to you will depend on the purchase and its value to you as an individual as well as your personal views on commitments like this. I’m happy that 50% of profits from my loo roll go to charity and 50% to shareholders because it’s a product I’d buy anyway, and it’s more sustainable than what I was buying before. Personally, I wouldn’t be happy with less than 3% of profits from a bracelet going to the cause, because it’s not something I would otherwise buy.
Commitments to donate only a tiny percentage of profit strike me as greenwashing, whereas large percentage commitments suggest a more genuine connection to the cause. However, tiny percentages can add up to making a real difference, so it's not all bad.
5. WHAT ARE THE CREDENTIALS OF THE SELLER?
There are loads of certifications out there for environmentally friendly practices that can be achieved by for-profit companies.
In our loo roll example, the company is a Certified B Corp. 4Ocean is also a Certified B Corp, a member of 1% For The Planet, Green Circle Certified, and their products meet the Global Organic Textile Standards and the Global Recycled Standard.
What do these things mean? It depends on who you ask. Some stand by certifications like these as important markers of ‘good’ companies, others dismiss them as expensive marketing badges that comprise no more than tick-box exercises. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
It’s not sensible to rely on these certifications as a guarantee that your purchase will do good, but a complete absence of appropriate certifications could be a red flag (the Plant a Tree Co mentioned in the Twitter thread above had none), and they can give you some level of comfort about certain aspects of the company.
6. IS THE PRODUCT ITSELF IN CONFLICT WITH THE CAUSE?
Often a definitive answer to this would require a lot of research, but you can think about it at a conceptual level before buying to weed out some problematic products.
Opinion will vary on this, but let’s use our bracelet example again. 4Ocean has had a lot of backlash over the fact that it sells bracelets that don’t last very long and will probably end up back in the ocean.
Bit of a harsh claim. “But aren’t they made from ocean plastic?” I hear you ask – well, no. Less than 5% of the cord is made from ocean plastic and less than 5% of the beads are made from ocean glass. This is an interesting choice, given that they claim to have removed more than 17 million pounds of trash from the ocean. The rest of the cord and beads are recycled, but made from post-consumer waste not ocean waste; they aren’t related to the ocean clean-up. They come with a cotton gift bag (a notoriously water-intensive crop) and are shipped from where they’re assembled in Bali.
All this information is on the product page for the bracelets, so you don’t need to invest time on a deep dive; often the information is hidden in plain sight, it just requires a bit more consideration.
It seems like I’m dumping on 4Ocean here. I kind of am, but your view is likely to be different if you really enjoy wearing bracelets or giving them as gifts, which is totally valid. It’s not a consideration unique to 4Ocean by any means. There are plenty of products that donate to green causes that are wrapped in single-use plastic and the like. A far worse example was the scam company Plant a Tree Co, where the products had no green credentials at all.
Now, I don’t believe in the narrative that if a product isn’t 100% green (is any product, really?) you might as well buy the much-worse alternative, but where you’re buying a product primarily to support the cause, an apparent conflict with said cause will give you pause for thought.
7. AM I USING THE DONATION AS AN EXCUSE?
Before you yell at me, I’m not saying that we have to ‘justify’ every purchase we make. If you’ve considered your level of consumption, made positive changes, and decided it’s still important to you to buy a product that has a negative environmental impact (as almost all products do), that’s okay! No hate here.
This question isn’t meant as an external justification-seeking question, but an introspective question to help you to consider your own consumption and what will make you happy.
Ask yourself whether you’re using the possible donation to excuse the impact of buying a product that you would otherwise feel didn’t meet your own personal values and thresholds in terms of impact and value.
You don’t have to be completely ‘green’ or ‘good’ (nobody is), but if you’re stood in Asda looking at a neon yellow T-shirt covered with glitter with a huge Pudsy Bear on the front and having a conversation with yourself about whether you should buy something you’ll only wear once, don’t let that 20% donation to Children in Need sway you. Donate your £2 to Children in Need directly and make a greener choice on the purchase.
8. IS IT THE BEST USE OF MY MONEY?
Again, there should be no expectation that we all maximise the impact of every pound we spend – that would be impossible and time-consuming. However, you might want to give some thought to how best to effect change and get the products that you need or want.
I’ll stick with 4Ocean for ease. There is a huge markup on their bracelets, and the same bracelets (made from recycled materials) are available from different sellers for a much lower cost. If I wanted to buy the bracelet, I might consider buying it at a lower price and donating the difference between that price and what I would’ve spent on 4Ocean’s to an ocean charity. Since 4Ocean only give around 1% of their profit to ocean clean-up (and are not transparent about it), I might feel I can make more difference giving a higher proportion of the amount I was willing to spend to charity, whilst still receiving the bracelet I want.
Alternatively, I might be unable to verify the green production credentials of other sellers of what seem to be the same product, so may stick with 4Ocean even though I know that most of that large markup is going into shareholders’ pockets. Either outcome is okay, but spending five minutes considering this and doing a quick product search will give you confidence in your choice.
You’ll spiral if you overthink this question too much but keep your eyes open to factors derived from the other questions that may suggest you could do more good in another way (if that’s what you’re looking to do).
9. DOES THE COMPANY DETAIL THE PARTNERS IT WORKS WITH AND POST PROOF OF THEIR IMPACT?
One telling omission on the Plant a Tree Co website was any mention of who plants the trees or which organisations receive the donations.
You don't need to do a forensic trace on the company's impact, but if the company is legitimate it should be easy to find information on their website about their impact. If it's missing, it suggests that, at best, they don't think it's important enough to take the time to include and, at worse, the offer is a scam and they don't really donate at all.
Which charities does the company partner with, or does it spend the funds itself (if it's a charity)? How much did the company donate or the charity spend in the past year? What kinds of projects and causes are being helped?
All of this information should be available quickly and easily. Smaller sellers often include screenshots of their proof of donation rather than long, glossy social good brochures.
If this information isn't easy to see, you're unlikely to feel secure in your purchase.
10. DOES THIS COMPANY GIVE ME A GOOD VIBE?
Not as silly a question as it sounds. Does the company give you the heebie jeebies?
What bothers you will be personal, but things like a ginormous social media add spend, marketing that seems misleading (e.g. appears as a charity but isn't), bad reviews, or bad press should make you pause.
There are plenty of suppliers of donation products that will give you no bad vibes, so skip on the ones that don't seem quite right without feeling the need to spend hours investigating their credentials.
Fundraising and donation products are fantastic and important. They’re a way to encourage people who couldn’t or wouldn’t donate cash directly to support good causes. They allow people to use their purchasing power to support wholesome things. They can divert what would otherwise be profit going into the back pockets of rich shareholders to worthy causes.
As a purchaser, though, you want to feel that your purchase makes a difference, and you don’t want to feel like you’ve been misled. Asking the questions in this post can help you to feel confident in your donation purchases. Happy donating!
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