It’s almost Thanksgiving. Oh my. At the mention of that word, I start thinking of Christmas, and inevitably wondering if it makes sense to buy gifts for my loved ones that may be a little off the mark and a little more expensive—but that will help people in need.

“Cause marketing,” it’s called. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads. Buy a “compassion scarf,” one urges, and help poor women in India. These kinds of pitches always tug at me, and it’s gotten worse since I bought my wonderful, comfortable, pretty Reef sandals.

Oh, those sandals! High-end flip-flops with a nicely padded sole, they caught my eye in a local store one summer day. Their straps were made of colorful woven fabric that reminded me of the Guatemalan artisans I’d seen working in a Central American plaza.

Curious, I examined the tag. Sure enough, the fabric had been fashioned by a cooperative of Mayan artisans, brought together by Reef and a charity called Nest. I’d never hear of Nest but didn’t pause to do any investigation. I bought the sandals on the spot.

I wore them and wore them, until the fabric faded and the arch began to crack. And still I wondered: When I paid $30 for them, had I done anyone any good?

I am already seeing potential holiday gifts that claim to have a charitable component: handbags, candies, sweaters. Each time I wonder anew if buying one of these products would serve any purpose, beyond salving my discomfort at living with plenty in a world of want.

The answer, I’ve discovered, is yes—and no.

Cause marketing began as early as 1983, when American Express decided to donate a portion of its profits from a certain credit card to the ongoing renovation of the Statue of Liberty. There’s a reference to that American Express offer in a 2012 Consumer Reports article about charitable buying. The article notes that, whatever the product, the tag should clearly state how much of the purchase price will go to the charity. If it doesn’t, beware.

I hadn’t seen anything on the tag for my Reef sandals that specifically said how many of my 3,000 pennies would actually go to the Mayan weavers. But I loved those shoes. The claim that they had been made by a women’s cooperative helped push me to pay more for a pair of flip flops that I really did need. And the nonprofit group Nest does seem to be doing good work, connecting manufacturers with people in need. So in the end, I made peace with that particular purchase.

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Later I came across some candy bars with labels that featured pictures of endangered animals. I bought a couple, wondering all the while if I was being scammed. But then I noticed the little medallion on the label: 10 percent of the net purchase price goes to conservation charities like Rainforest Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Network. A list of “10 percent Giveback Partners” was inside the wrapper.

My purchase that day contributed only pennies. But it adds up. The Endangered Species Chocolates web site reports that $1.2 million has been given to its charity partners in the past three years. The organizations are free to use the funds however they wish—and I heartily approve of that. Requiring charities to use donations for particular projects may tie their hands when it comes to innovation, and it often makes it harder to raise funds for critical needs like salaries and keeping the lights turned on.

Once again this purchase worked beautifully, because I was going to buy some chocolates anyway.

Last month I came across another reason to choose these particular treats: Endangered Species Chocolates is on a list of candy producers who have pledged not to use child labor, a common practice in the industry. That alone is reason to support their brand.

Back to my Christmas shopping list: Perhaps I should buy token gifts or no gifts at all for my loved ones, and instead make donations to my favorite charities in their honor. Jeff and I often take this tack. But it doesn’t work for everyone. Some of my family members really want to give us gifts, and I prefer to reciprocate. It’s a fun way to connect: scheming about what they’d like and coming up with fun ways to surprise them.

After years of turning this problem over in my mind, here’s what I’ve decided to do when purchasing gifts for the people I love:

 * Can I find a cause-marketed product that fits the person’s desires and needs? If so, I jump on it. This, to me, is the perfect marriage of love and conscience-based shopping.

  * If I can’t find something fun and appealing that will also benefit the needy, I try to find a choice gift on sale. I pool my savings from these items and give them to a good cause.

  * When neither of those works, I buy a gift and give it without reservation.

It’s not hard to be a wise “cause consumer,” but it does take some research. Also, it’s easy to get pulled into impulsively buying a cleverly hyped product or book of coupons before you have time to look into it a bit more. When that happens, shrug it off. Next time, perhaps, you’ll think twice. And buying some of those products does in fact help others.

Choosing wisely, getting a kick out of matching gift to person: That, to me, is a big part of the season’s excitement. But so, also, is reserving a generous amount to give to good causes. Finding the right balance, as always, is the key.

Here’s a link to the Consumer Reports article on charitable buying and a link to the web site for the nonprofit group Nest.

AuthorJan DeBlieu