Failure of the Supplement

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

“You should buy our coffee, because by doing so you help local growers and roasters. 2% of your purchase will go to providing for sustainable coffee.”

This is a supplement, where a portion of what you do with your money goes to some business, charity, or venture, that gives us the illusion that we are not spending frivolously. It’s ethical consumerism.

I was recently sold on this idea from which is a website that claims to donate a portion of your book purchase to independent bookstores across the United States. I bought a book that was $20 on bookshop, where instead it was $15 on Amazon, and with shipping and handling it came out to $24 total. $2.63 would go to bookstores.

This is a problem.

The first and most obvious problem is that it took so much energy from me to concede and pay a much higher amount for a book, only to realize that the extra money going to a bookstore would be minimum. And as of this writing $628,000 have gone to local bookstores, which is a start, but is not promising.

Supplemental payments in your purchase is not a new thing. Even Amazon has its “Smile” program, and I have that option to make donations to the church I grew up in as a way to return the favor of being raised in a loving place.

But a second big problem now is this: no one’s buying anything.

When an economy is good, that is when the supplement (sort of) works. Each smaller charitable donation while, yes, quite small, still adds up because the large volume of small purchases can add up to something great.

But right now everyone is tightening their consumption, because they do not know what the economy will look like in five weeks, let alone five years, and I can imagine many of these supplements are drying out.

A third and more deeply rooted problem with this sales tactic is that it hides the possibility for public intervention by embedding a much less valuable one in private enterprise.

When I visited London several years ago, I was amazed at the wealth of independent and chain bookstores, living side by side, and offering wildly different products and services to a literate citizenry. For any reader, Hatchards is a religious experience.

That is because the government of the United Kingdom sets the standards for independent bookstores to thrive.

By creating public policy at the top-end, patrons are not only able to read books, but they are able to cultivate the experience and environment of books that suit them.

The downside to privatized charity like we have is that bookstores must rely on consumer demand, while also at the mercy of draconian policy that makes opening a bookstore in the United States, even in a major city, sort of like playing russian roulette.

The linkages between producer and consumer are closing in, however. Bandcamp is an excellent way to provide the most money possible to a musician because it strips out the middle man. If I had my way, there would be a bandcamp for every artistic endeavor we have.

But until that time, if the United States is interested in fostering both local and national cultures in arts and the humanities, it’s going to have to build that space itself.

P.S. – For more information on the concept, Slavoj Zizek discusses this in many of his books, as well as in his movie, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

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