Sunday, October 04, 2015
If a gift is new to you, does its source matter?
Just how many details do you need to offer to keep someone from assuming something that might not be accurate?
A reader in the Midwest, A.C., belongs to an organization that raises funds for educational causes. For the past two years A.C. and a friend have been in charge of putting 20 to 25 gift baskets together for the organization's annual fundraiser.
"Once we see what donations have come in," writes A.C. "we decide on a theme and make the arrangement."
To enhance the visual appeal of the baskets, A.C. writes that she and her friend "add embellishments."
"For example, if we have a gift card to a really nice restaurant, we add a bottle of wine, a couple of wine glasses, and perhaps a wine stopper. For a few of the baskets we might use a beautiful platter or a large crystal bowl for the base instead of an actual basket."
An issue that concerns A.C., however, is that many of the embellishments they use for the baskets are those they find at thrift stores or garage sales.
"Naturally we wash everything first," she writes. "And we never include our embellishments in the gift basket's value."
But, she acknowledges that it's safe to say that "everyone assumes the items are new."
A.C.'s friend and she have an "unspoken agreement" that they never really inform anyone where the embellishments are found. "Everyone is so busy with their own tasks that no one ever asks about the specifics of the baskets." A.C. and her friend are complimented on their handiwork and thanked for their efforts.
"Is using items that have been previously owned (maybe, maybe not, used) in these baskets unethical?" A.C. asks.
If the baskets were presented as being full of new purchased items when they in fact included second-hand finds that would be a problem. Even if they are donated goods put together by unpaid volunteers, misrepresenting what's in the baskets would cross an ethical line.
It would also be wrong to include any second-hand items in the basket that might present a risk to any recipient. Second-hand food might not sit well on the stomach.
But A.C. and her friend are not telling anyone that the items in the gift baskets are brand new. They aren't telling them that some of the items might be second-hand goods either. That omission does not strike me as crossing an ethical line any more than including items that a retail store gave them to use that it otherwise would have discarded.
A.C. and her friend are contributing their time and efforts to their community by creatively supporting an effort that gives to educational causes. Good on them for doing so.
If someone asks them directly if all of the items are new, the right thing is for them to be honest and reveal that some of the items in the gift basket mix may have had a previous home.
They should be able to rest easy knowing that they are doing good while not lying about what they are doing. If one of the recipients happens upon a garage sale find in his or her gift basket that turns out to be quite valuable, then the question becomes whether they think it's right to donate the proceeds from that find to the educational efforts as well.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.