By Eric Braun and Sandy Donovan, coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts
As we wade bravely into another holiday season, many of us will be trying to keep the inevitable consumerism to a minimum while emphasizing (especially to the young people in our lives) the more important reasons for the season—being generous, being grateful, and enjoying some extra time with our friends and families. But the winter holidays are consumer-driven—no getting around it—and that’s not all bad. It’s how our economy works.
As kids are making lists and thinking about gifts and getting wrapped up in the excitement of the holidays, teachers and parents can seize this enthusiasm as an opportunity to teach important financial literacy skills as well as how to make decisions that reflect kids’ positive character traits and best values. It starts with being mindful.
Being a mindful consumer simply means being aware of our part in the consumer cycle. It means thinking about all the things that happen as a result of our spending—not only how spending money affects us, but also how it affects others and the world. It means being aware that our choices make a difference and, therefore, being deliberate about our decisions.
There are three things consumers can do to make a difference:
- Buy less. (Reuse items you already have, buy pre-owned items, buy in bulk rather than buying individually wrapped items, and so on.)
- Buy products that do as little harm as possible. (Avoiding products that are tested on animals, food products that are made with chemicals, overly sugary foods, and products like tobacco and alcohol.)
- Buy from responsible companies whenever possible.
All three of these practices are important, and all three can be the focus of a classroom lesson or family discussion. The following activity focuses on the third practice. It will help kids:
- understand where their money goes when they purchase a product
- identify different companies they want to patronize
- understand where a company stands on social and environmental issues as well as its community involvement
Through this activity, kids will learn how to make informed decisions about which companies they choose to give their money to. It is geared toward middle school kids but can be adjusted for kids in upper elementary. You can also make adjustments as needed to fit the financial realities of your group or family.
Company Ethics Research
Teachers can have students do this on their own, in small groups, or as a class. Kids choose a company that they patronize—maybe a company that makes a game they play, a food they eat, or a brand of clothes they wear. Or maybe the company produces entertainment, like a production company that makes a TV show they watch or an online music streaming service. Another option is to think of a vendor they buy from, like a grocery store chain or an online retailer.
Have kids research the company online to find out how it operates with regard to issues such as human rights, the environment, and animal welfare. How is the company involved in the community (for example, by donating to charities or encouraging employees to do community service)? Does it make political donations, and if so, what laws is it trying to influence? Has the company ever been in trouble for discrimination or harassment?
Kids can begin this search by typing the phrase “is [company] ethical” into an online search engine. They may also be able to find answers using websites like the Good Shopping Guide, Ethical Consumer (scores are available for free, but a subscription is required for in-depth results), and myriad other sites and apps. Students may want to use the “Is a Company Responsible?” handout from The Survival Guide for Money Smarts to help organize their research into a simple format.
Depending on how deeply you want kids to go, you can have them write a brief essay summarizing their findings, discuss their findings as a family, or have them research a second company in the same category (two coffee chains, for instance) and compare the results for various characteristics. Kids should compare their findings to their own values and discuss whether they will make a change in their shopping habits.
You can find this activity and many others, plus discussion/writing prompts, in the free leader’s guide to our book.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social-emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors, including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A recent McKnight Artist Fellow and an Aspen Summer Words scholar for his fiction, he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.
Sandy Donovan has written nonfiction books for kids and young adults on topics including economics, history, science, and pop stars. She has worked as a journalist, a workforce policy analyst, and a website developer. She currently works for the U.S. Department of Labor, developing online tools to help people of all ages meet their career, education, and employment goals. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in labor and public policy. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.
Eric and Sandy are coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give.
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