By Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of consumers worldwide were willing to pay more for socially or environmentally responsible goods, up from 50 percent in 2013.
When Ellis Jones meets up with old college friends each year in Colorado, he puts his money where his heart is.
He and his pals, all of whom went through comic-nerd and Dungeons & Dragons stages, make a point of heading to the local comic book store, where prices are considerably higher than they are online.
"It's a recognition not just of that business itself, but of what it means and what it adds to the community, the subcultures that exist because of that business," said Jones, 47, now a college professor in Massachusetts.
"We each spend up to $100 bucks once a year there to do our part, to cast our vote for that comic book store."
Jones isn't alone. When I put out a call for people who are willing to pay a higher price to support a small business, farmer or artist they care about, my Facebook friends and co-workers showered me with examples.
They are paying more for books, fresh produce, model train supplies, knitting yarn, fly fishing equipment, bicycles, crafts, items from the local hardware store, guitar equipment and music.
Research focusing specifically on these purchases is sparse, there isn't even an accepted name for them, although a friend reported he was asked if he was making a "sympathy purchase" when he bought music at an independent music store.
But there are broad indications that these purchases are popular, especially in the influential millennial demographic.
About half of millennials, ages 16-34, are willing to pay more to support a small business, compared with 38 percent of Gen Xers and 42 percent of baby boomers, according to an AT&T and Added Value survey conducted earlier this year.
A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of consumers worldwide were willing to pay more for socially or environmentally responsible goods, up from 50 percent in 2013.
"The latest thing in ethical consumerism is that people are beginning to see their roles as shoppers as similar to their roles as citizens," said Jones, an assistant professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and the author of The Better World Shopping Guide.
"People are getting this sense, over time, that their values really matter in the marketplace, as much as they matter in the voting booth. People are willing to pay more if they think a company is going to represent those values, pay their workers fairly, treat the environment well, the things that these consumers are hoping for and not getting immediately out of the political system."
Paying what I'll call the "passion price", more for an item sold by a small business because you care about the item, the seller or both, fits into that larger picture, Jones said. And it comes with the same challenges, both financial and psychological.
Maybe your local bookstore offers a 20 percent discount on a hardcover, but if Amazon offers 31 percent, who are you going to go with? The phone bill and the grocery bill still have to be paid, presumably, and speaking of the grocery bill, can you really afford to shop at the local farmers market?
For that matter, can you afford not to?
"I often advise people, as they try to shop with their values, to try not to brutalize themselves in the process," said Jones.
"You can't always afford the (most ethical) purchase. What you should be thinking about is the overall impact. I think of my overall shopping GPA, and I try to shoot for a B+ throughout the year. I don't always get there, but I try."
For an item he commonly buys, he might be willing to pay a 20 percent premium, he said. For a rare purchase, he'd be willing to go higher.
"There's no pure equation for doing it right," he said, and the average person who is trying to shop according to values wrestles with himself or herself, a lot.
Still, I encountered a lot of joy in my brief journey through the land of passion prices. My Ohio-based train-loving friend Facebooked me that he can't find a local model train shop, so he often orders from a small business in Rhode Island.
My friend who knits wrote enthusiastically about her local knitting store; my brother sang the praises of his local fly fishing store; my sister enthused about her local bike store.
One of my editors gleefully showed me the Comme des Garcons sneakers he bought at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he was blown away by an exhibit of work by the fashion label's founder, Rei Kawakubo.
Could he have gotten the sneakers for a little less online? Yes, he said. But he wanted to support the museum.
Another editor told me about paying more for food to support small farms, local farmers, sustainable fisheries and organic farming.
My neighbor, a book lover and recent business school grad, told me she actually looks up how much she would pay for a book on Amazon and then buys the book from our local bookstore at a higher price.
She's not comparison shopping; she wants the satisfaction of knowing exactly how much she's paying toward her goal of keeping the shop in our town.
Book lovers face some of the most clear-cut and befuddling choices. Amazon offers not only lower prices but remarkable convenience, which can tip the scales for parents of young children.
But during a recent weekend visit to The Book Table, a "fiercely independent" bookstore in Oak Park, patrons said there's no substitute for the brick-and-mortar store where you can browse, soak in the ambiance and feel a connection to your fellow readers.
"I love supporting local businesses," said Allison Jumic, a nurse from Elmhurst who was inspecting the children's section, an oversized picture book already tucked under her arm.
"I feel like this is what keeps communities together, places like this."