How many times have we struggled to reconcile our feelings about the “season of giving” with the gross economic inequality we see all around us? Or suffered a twinge of guilt after hearing the latest news report about families living on the edge while we go to the mall for a shopping spree?
The holiday season sometimes creates a conflict between our higher moral character and crass commercialism. And the glaring disparity between the inspirational message of the holidays and the financial hardships for many has been brought out of the shadows this year by the very public conversation around economic inequality.
San Francisco recently became the second city in the nation to eventually raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, following Seattle. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed a citywide minimum wage increase, and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson plans a task force to study one.
So how does the average consumer navigate this ethical minefield? A great place to start is by closing the gap between our values and our buying habits.
Consumers are projected to spend more than $600 billion this holiday season, nearly 20 percent of retail sales for the year. What if we used that enormous economic power to lift up those at the bottom, or those trying to keep a foothold in the middle class?
In the same way that consumers have created pressure for a wide array of green products and healthy foods, we can push corporate America toward practices that reward the hard work of its dedicated employees.
The formula is simple: Spend more money at businesses that provide good jobs, and less at those that offer poverty wages and paltry benefits.
This is no pipe dream. Polls show that 2 out of 3 Americans are unhappy with wealth and income distribution. Surveys also show that more than half of all Americans express a preference for brands that support well-being and sustainability.
The missing piece here is an effective effort to educate consumers about the link between their buying habits and income inequality. The public needs to know that every time we buy groceries, book a hotel or patronize a retail outlet, we have a choice – to either reinforce or to combat the income gap.
Need to stock up on household supplies? A trip to Costco supports jobs that pay, on average, twice as much as Wal-Mart. In search of lodging for an upcoming trip? Depending on where you stay, you can give your money to a hotel that pays its workers minimum wage, or one that offers living wages and benefits.
Living your values does not mean self-sacrifice; on the contrary, businesses that provide good jobs often treat their customers better. Nor does it mean striving for perfection; 10 percent is all we ask.
Shifting even that small percentage of consumer spending from businesses that treat their employees poorly to those that reward hard work could have an enormous impact on corporate behavior. High-road employers would make more money, enabling them to hire more workers, while the bottom feeders would be compelled to alter their practices.
Defenders of the status quo often dismiss efforts to target certain companies as “anti-business.” But a consumer-driven push to reduce inequality by supporting good employers would be pro-business in the best sense. It would spur a cycle of competition among businesses to improve job quality. Instead of a race to the bottom in search of higher profits, we would have a race to the top.
A mass consumer movement in support of companies that provide good jobs would transform our economy – and, more importantly, help us rebuild the disappearing middle class.
Cherri Senders of Los Angeles is founder and publisher of Labor 411, a consumer guide to companies that treat their workers fairly.