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There is conscious consumption, the act of purchasing with an awareness of its impact on society and the environment. And, of course, there's conspicuous consumption, first identified in the 19th century to denote the habits of the nouveau riche. Now that social causes have become bona fide brands, however, are we officially in an era of conspicuously conscious consumption?

Not to pour a bucket of ice water on sincerity, but shopping for visibly branded items under the guise of a greater purpose to give spending meaning (regardless of whether a product's philanthropic contribution is substantial or negligible) has started to feel like just another luxury boondoggle. Been there, bought the red T-shirt, to put it more succinctly.

In development circles, workers have been using the acronym SWEDOW – i.e., Stuff We Don't Want – to describe the well-meaning but often ineffective aid and donations so common these days – you know, the swarms of voluntourists hugging adorable orphans, those boxes of collected used brassieres flown in and distributed to impoverished women. This tripping on the altruism of our own "admirable but misdirected intentions," in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, is what he calls "a remedy that is part of the disease."

And the disease seems to be spreading.

One example of the commercial cure being worse than the ailment is the kind of "buy one, give one" schemes championed by companies such as TOMS shoes, which has been criticized by London-based writer Tansy Hoskins, author of the recent book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, for disingenuously positioning individual shoppers as philanthropists, effectively "turning customers into benefactors." Echoing many aid workers, Hoskins has been pointing out how the act of sending Chinese-made shoes to the poor and hungry in other countries does little to remedy either condition. Unfortunately, there are few quick fixes when it comes to poverty reduction – and to be reminded of this at the mall is a definite shopping downer. Meantime, companies built on the perceived foundation of socially responsible consumerism receive a competitive advantage and sometimes a big payoff: Blake Mycoskie, the founder and head of TOMS, is expanding the brand's offering to eyewear and coffee; in August, he sold a 50-per-cent stake in the company to the private-equity giant Bain Capital, which valued it at $625-million (U.S.).

Four years ago, Canadian Barb Stegemann launched her perfume company The 7 Virtues on a lot less ($2,000) and in response to what a developing community in Afghanistan was actually motivated and equipped to sell (neroli oil, a key ingredient in her Orange Blossom scent). "We don't want to pretend that we're the big solution – that if you buy my fragrance, you've single-handedly fixed the world," Stegemann, who describes what she does as "retail activism," says over the phone from her office in downtown Halifax. "But the trade, not aid, adds up" for the supplier community. To date, she says, The 7 Virtues has pumped at least a quarter of a million dollars into the Afghan city of Jalalabad by buying its fair-trade oil.

Stegemann's latest cologne, Patchouli of Rwanda, was launched last month and is made with ingredients sourced from co-op fields in the African country. The co-op employs 400 people, a number that Stegemann and her supplier predict will increase to more than 1,200 once a fourth patchouli site becomes fully operational over the next three years. "All we're doing is conducting business as equals. I need my supplier, he needs me." And the result is beneficial for both.

Of course, distinctions such as this aren't always so obvious in the department-store aisle; the consumer is required to do a little research, not just purchase blindly.

But it's something to remember the next time you're buying perfume – or trying on a new pair of shoes.

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