I've written a bit on this blog about "moral consumption," how Americans try to meet their moral obligations through spending. We buy green, fair trade or red products. The idea seems to be that we get to have our cake and eat it too. We get to spend and consume while also being an enlightened moral person. We help the world through shopping.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's article in Slate--Buy Local, Act Evil--suggests that the problem might be even worse. Specifically, recent psychological research suggests that when we buy for moral reasons we behave, afterward, more poorly. It seems that having done our duty, morally speaking, when we shopped we feel entitled to let our behavior slip in other areas. From the article:
Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we've established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I'm a good person, so what I'm doing now must be okay...
Another, potentially overlapping theory holds that we have a kind of subconscious moral accounting system. We like to think of ourselves as good guys, but sainthood has costs. So when we have done our mitzvah for the day, we cut ourselves some slack. In this model, "moral credits" are a kind of currency we accrue and spend.