Actress Blake Lively recently launched a website called Preserve, which aims to promote an artisanal lifestyle through the posting of recipes, craft projects and style profiles, and to sell a variety of food and clothing items. Because Preserve genuinely desires “to give back to those with fewer opportunities but just as much heart and soul as anyone else,” it will donate 5% of every purchase to a charity that helps American children.
This practice of giving while getting, made popular by such companies as Warby Parker and Toms, has become a mainstay for the types of folks Lively is targeting with her site. I’m talking about that particular slice of the upper-middle-class educated elite, a generation of young adults found mostly in the hipper precincts of Brooklyn and of Portland, Oregon. They — and, admittedly, sometimes I — seek a more authentic, genuine existence and often try to achieve this through consumption, whether through the purchase of free-trade, small-batch coffee or chocolate; using locally made bicycles, or a buying pair of reading glasses from a site that automatically donates a pair to someone in need.
The fact that consumers now see charity as an appealing aspect of a brand’s image is a good thing, even when it seems a little superficial. Like Lively says, poverty is a real problem: “One that even on our high horse we can’t ignore.” Still, as the act of giving is increasingly bound up in acquisition rather than altruism, might we be degrading it?
There are two ways to arrive at giving. One is as an individual compulsion, be it a product of guilt, care or selflessness; the other is when giving is a systemic requirement, part of the normal function of society. Jewish tradition has always favored the latter. As illustrated in the Book of Ruth, in which a young widow is sent out to the fields to collect food for herself and her mother-in-law, who is also widowed, systems for giving and receiving used to be woven into agricultural practices. Jewish law instructs us to leave a portion of our harvest for the poor, as well as to give 10% of that season’s yield to the needy. Indeed, peyes, sidelocks are daily reminders, for those who wear them, of the Jewish obligation to leave a portion of one’s wealth for those who need it.
As my teacher, the Israeli novelist Ruby Namdar, pointed out, there is something rational and wise about a system of giving that relies on institutions and not on individuals. The intermixing of consumerism and giving has a similar effect. It doesn’t rely on people summoning the urge to give on their own, but rather follows the conventions of our time, embedding charity into our daily habits of, yes, buying cool stuff.
Still, there are ways of giving that do more for both the giver and the receiver. Givers can experience varying degrees of humility. Maybe they gain a deeper understanding of the whys and hows of poverty, or come to terms with fragility and unpredictability of life. Or maybe they just drop some change in the bucket and go back to their Twitter feed. And the receiver can experience varying degrees of dignity depending on how empowered or degraded he or she feels when taking the donation.
The buy-and-give model appears to allow for a fair amount of dignity on the receiving end. From what I can gather, these companies distribute their goods in a thoughtful and respectful manner — but, I suspect, not too much in the way of humility on the giving side. In his “Laws of Gifts to the Poor,” Maimonides created a ladder of tzedakah, in which he presents an eight-rung hierarchy of giving. His concern was determining which type of giving would provide the least amount of embarrassment for the recipient, and bragging rights for whoever provided the help. According to Maimonides, the greatest act of giving is one in which the needy receives a gift or interest-free loan that allows him or her to gain independence. The lowest act of giving is when one gives unwillingly. Buying a pair of Toms or something from Preserve probably falls somewhere around the fourth rung, “when one does not know to whom one gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor.” Not bad.
When asked about the ladder and how it reflects on the buy-one, give-one model, Forward contributor Rabbi Scott Perlo reminded me that many misunderstand Maimonides’s intent. It is not, he explained, an attempt to critique or dissuade individuals from practicing the lower level of giving, but rather a reminder that within the act of giving, we can strive higher and do better.
Sure, there are better ways of giving than one born of acquisitiveness. For the sake of us, the authenticity-seeking, Warby Parker glasses-wearers (I have two pairs), I do hope we push deeper and continue to seek ways to make the world’s wrongs right. This might mean making sure those donated Toms shoes are really helping people, or actually giving 10% of our income to the poor by way of an interest-free loan, as Jewish tradition suggests.
But for the sake of the poor, I say let’s also hedge our bets with human greed and continue to invest cachet in brands that incorporate philanthropy into the shopping experience. Sure, the incorporation of philanthropy into consumerism might inspire some people to give more and of their own accord, but waiting for such enlightenment among Blake Lively fans feels a little too much like a pipe dream, and those are still unavailable on Preserve.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.