Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: HOW FREE ARE FREEBIES?

Whenever I stay at a particular hotel in downtown Madison, Wisc., I know that I don't have to worry about remembering to pack shaving cream, toothpaste or other basic toiletries to use on the road. The desk clerk routinely offers me such sundries upon check-in.

So I understood the basic context of an e-mail from a reader in North Carolina who has an ethical quandary involving this sort of freebie.

A former colleague of my reader's is a volunteer for an organization that provides food and shelter to homeless people during the winter. The colleague sent my reader and others an appeal for donations of small, sample-size containers of goods such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste, razors and shaving cream.

"While his appeal noted that such items can be purchased inexpensively," my reader writes, "it also pointed out that, since they are available at hotels and motels, we should bring them back when traveling or on vacation."

My reader normally leaves any unused "freebies" at the place he's staying. He reflects that, while hotels may consider the disappearance of these goods to be "part of the cost of doing business," perhaps "other travelers would rather have lower room rates than, in effect, contribute to a cause they don't care about."

His question: "Is it ethical to collect these items for the purpose of donating them to this worthwhile cause?"

Many hotels, in an effort to be perceived as more environment-friendly, have taken to asking guests whether they want their towels laundered daily. So far, though, they've yet to give guests the option of choosing a lower room rate if they don't use the free shampoo and soap, although it's a novel cost-saving idea.

Unlike the linen, towels or alarm clocks placed in hotel rooms for a guest's use during their stay _ and only during their stay _ bars of soap and bottles of shampoo are consumable. If there are two bars of soap in the bathroom, one on the sink and another in the shower, and a guest decides to unwrap only one and save the other for later use, given that the hike from the sink to the shower is not exactly arduous, he is not using more than the hotel has given him for personal consumption. If, like many travelers, he returns home with an occasional bar of unused hotel soap packed among his belongings, it seems like a worthy endeavor to donate such goods to a not-for-profit that can put them to good use.

My reader's ex-colleague goes too far, however, when he suggests that travelers set out to collect more than was intended for use during their individual hotel stay. Saving a bar of soap intended for personal use is one thing, but grabbing a handful from a maid's cart is quite another.

As I have often said in this column, if you've obtained something wrongly, it doesn't matter what you do with it, it's still wrong. Robbing from the rich is still robbing, whether you give it to the poor or blow it in Las Vegas. That applies to money, valuables and even, yes, little bars of soap.

The right thing for the shelter to do is to request that individuals donate toiletries that they either have purchased on their own or have been given for their own use. It should not encourage the wrongful acquisition of such items, regardless of how noble its intentions.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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