For some consumers, one big-box store might be the same as any other. But to brand strategist and Christian consumer Chris Stone, there's a moral distinction between Lowe's and Home Depot.
Stone is the founder of Faith-Driven Consumer, a website that takes cause marketing to a new level: It rates entertainment and companies based on Stone's biblical world view — a set of values applied to each company or film to see if it's compatible with Christian-minded consumers. Stone sees it as a way of helping Christian shoppers the way a site like Buy Green might attract environmentalists: By putting his faith lens over the business world.
Did the company donate big to charity? That's a point in its favor, according to Stone’s criteria. Did it support same-sex marriage or get a little too provocative in some ads? That might work against it.
While the Internet caters to values-based consumers who want to buy products that are everything from fair trade, cruelty-free or made without child labor, there are few sites that cater specifically to Christian groups for buying from specific brands or stores. The problem for some Christian consumers may be finding a site that best reflects their individual values and beliefs.
You are what you buy?
Values-based consumerism isn't a new concept, but the millennial generation has arguably elevated the practice of buying based on personal values with its marked enthusiasm for sustainability — in 2011, the Pew Research Center found that millennials are very concerned about the environment with 71 percent saying the U.S. should prioritize alternative green energy and 82 percent in favor of government policies that support wind, solar and hydrogen energy solutions.
Other research has found they are most likely to buy "responsibly made products" and are choosing bikes or mass transit over driving out of concern for the environment. They're also more likely to work for companies that exhibit strong corporate social responsibility, which doesn't surprise career expert and author Melissa Llarena.
These days, Llarena says, Americans don't trust corporations. A 2013 Harris Interactive survey found that Americans were twice as likely to trust small businesses as large ones. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer from the Edelman global public relations firm found that more than half of Americans felt it was the government's job to protect consumers from businesses. All of this makes services like Faith-Driven Consumer and peer reviews very powerful tools, Llarena said.
"It's all about control. Corporations have given up a little bit of control to social media," Llarena said. "If a friend says they like a particular product, you assume they actually care more than a corporation. And with the advent of the Internet making information so accessible, you know more than you ever knew before [about corporate practices]."
Spending money according to personal beliefs and values — religious or secular — is a good thing, Ryan Howell says. Howell is a psychologist with San Francisco State University's Personality and Well-Being Lab and co-founder of Beyond the Purchase, an organization dedicated to exploring the connection between a person's happiness and how they spend their money. Through exhaustive research, Howell has found that, if spent correctly, money just might be able to buy happiness.
"Sometimes people go through their lives and they don’t have time to ask themselves about what they value," Howell said. "But [the way we spend money] has huge impacts on our well-being."
That impact is especially profound when people spend discretionary money on experiences — concerts, travel or other memory-making activities. In 2009, Howell published a study that polled 154 people ages 19 to 50 and found that people who spent their money on some sort of experience were not only made happy at the time of the purchase, but the experience continued to make them happy throughout their lives.
The underlying principle for this is what psychologists call self-concordance: The idea that a person is happiest when they feel that they're striving toward goals or causes that speak to their passions, core values and beliefs.
That experience can also be had in everyday purchases, Howell said.
"For example, I shop at a farmers market. It's expensive," Howell said. "I paid $8 for a dozen eggs when I could get them at the store for 99 cents. That $7 is where I put my value."
Defining a large market
For Stone, Faith-Driven Consumer is not about boycotting the brands he rates as "leaning against a biblical world view," it's about market discourse.
"If a store was designed for you and it catered only to people like you, I might not feel as welcome. It's not about good or bad, it's about compatibility with a Christian philosophy and world view," Stone said. "We're saying that we exist too, we have a particular lens, and if you want us to have a preference for you, recognize and respect us. And if you don’t — fine."
But Patheos culture and entertainment writer Rebecca Cusey urges that Christians, like any other market sector, should vet their trusted sources of information and beware of sites that want too much personal information. She is an outspoken critic of Faith-Driven Consumer, especially amid its response to “Noah” before the film’s release.
“I don’t like the ‘us vs. them’ attitude. That setup doesn’t serve anyone. That tone, to me, is not Christ-like. There are people all over this country who are living their faith and they don’t have time to delve into the issues like Hobby Lobby or ‘Noah’ the movie. They rely on people to say you should be concerned about this who are trustworthy,” Cusey said. “For the small segments who want things approved by some religious leader, they have the resources to do that (especially for entertainment). But I don’t think Faith-Driven Consumer is that source.”
While the site may not be for everyone, Stone says he hopes the site empowers the faith-driven consumer sector — which he estimates at about 46 million people, or 15 percent of the overall Christian population — to articulate itself as others have.
"The Christian community has lagged behind other groups in establishing what they expect from corporations, entertainment providers or the government," Stone said. "Many if not most American brands have not a clue how to engage faith-driven consumers."
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