Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Pact underwear's website encourages buyers: "Join us to help grow urban gardens across America." (PHOTO COURTESY PACT)

Pact underwear's website encourages buyers: "Join us to help grow urban gardens across America." (PHOTO COURTESY PACT)

How Much Does That Company Actually Give to Charity?

• February 27, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Pact underwear's website encourages buyers: "Join us to help grow urban gardens across America." (PHOTO COURTESY PACT)

The trouble with shopping your way to good works

One afternoon not long ago, I walked into Stag, an Austin, Texas, retailer for the “modern gentleman,” and spotted a pair of boxer briefs—brand name: Pact—that claimed to offer the “perfect fit.” At 22 bucks a pair they weren’t cheap, but I was intrigued. (I’ll spare you the details, but for years I have searched for the perfect pair of boxer briefs. Everyone has a grail.) What also caught my eye was a line on the packaging that promised: “For every pair of Pact you buy, we pay it forward by making a positive impact on our world.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it helped put me over the edge. Sold.

When I got home and checked the website, I learned that Pact, a hip San Francisco underwear company, has supported a long and diverse list of worthy causes: tsunami survivors, disabled artists, orphans in India. I learned that Pact is a “movement disguised as a clothing company.” And I learned that the company’s slogan is “You change your underwear, together we change the world.”

What I did not learn was how much of the money I’d spent went to disabled artists or Indian orphans. Nor did I learn what the company donates annually to these deserving charities.

And with that, my new pair of boxers sent me on another quest: to figure out how to think about companies like Pact, which sell stuff to people like me by appealing to our sense of civic-mindedness.

The idea of linking consumption to charity, known today as cause marketing, is usually traced to a 1983 promotion by American Express that donated a penny from every transaction and a dollar for every new account to help restore the Statue of Liberty. Since then, the practice has become so ubiquitous—by one estimate, it is now a $1.7-billion-a-year business—that it’s hard to make a run to the grocery store without fighting cancer. Laudable, altruistic motivations aside, the business case for this phenomenon is clear: a 2010 survey by Cone Communications found that most Americans would likely be willing to switch to a new or unfamiliar brand if it supported a cause, and nearly one in five would be willing to pay more for a do-gooder product.

It’s not surprising, then, that newer companies like Pact are embracing philanthropy from the get-go. Everything about the public identities of these companies is wrapped up in some professed higher purpose. They’re about making money, sure, but they’re also on a mission to (insert mission here). They’re for-profits dressed up like nonprofits.

One problem with cause-marketing campaigns is that they may make people less eager to donate to charities directly. In a 2011 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers gave subjects a hundred hypothetical dollars and let them decide whether to spend it on clothing or donate it to a worthy cause. They could spend half on themselves; they could donate every last cent; it was up to them. Now the important part: the subjects were divided into groups. Some were told that a portion of certain clothing purchases would go to charity. Another group—the control—had to choose: buy clothes or help others.

The control group gave substantially more to charity. For everyone else, vaguely altruistic purchases largely took the place of old-fashioned charitable donations. They already gave, so why give again? It’s as if the impulse to be kind has already been gratified, suggests Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College and author of Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help. “People check it off their to-do list of charity,” she says.

That might be dandy if companies were as generous as they seem. But multiple studies have shown that consumers consistently overestimate how much of the amount they spend on a product goes to charity. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing found this was true even among consumers trained in accounting. When told that a certain percentage of profits goes to a cause, nearly everyone thinks they’re donating more than they are.

And the companies don’t exactly make it easy to figure out. In 2007, the founder of Ethos Water declared that the bottled-water brand, which is owned by Starbucks and sold in its cafes, would donate at least $10 million by 2010 to support safe-water projects in the developing world. Ethos’ slogan is “Helping Children Get Clean Water.” But is Ethos living up to its ethos? Hard to say. As of this writing, nearly two years after the 2010 goal came and went, the company’s website says Ethos has raised “more than $6 million”—which is the same amount it claimed to have raised in 2008. When I inquired, one spokesman confirmed the $6 million amount. Another said $7.2 million. Still another said the company has indeed raised $10 million, but has so far only donated $7.2 million of it. Unlike a nonprofit, the company isn’t required to be transparent. You have to trust them.

I’m not the only one bothered. This fall the New York state attorney general’s office issued guidelines encouraging companies to eschew vague pledges and instead to reveal exactly how much money has been donated and to keep those figures up to date. That would make companies more accountable while still allowing them, as the guidelines put it, to “showcase their generosity.”

As for Pact, it hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much it gives to the causes it trumpets. Jeff Denby, a Pact cofounder, writes in an e-mail that the company’s relationships with nonprofits are more like partnerships and go beyond merely “writing a check.” Perhaps, but its customers might be curious about the size of that check. Denby would only say it’s “significant.” Again, it’s down to a matter of trust. Is Pact really trying to change the world, or is it merely strumming consumers’ heartstrings to hawk its unmentionables? I still have no idea. But I do know this: the undies themselves are beyond reproach.

This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard with the title “This Underwear Should Be More Transparent.”

Tom Bartlett
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.