Mark Bennett: When supporting Ukrainians, choose a strong relief organization | Opinion

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It is hard to see the trauma felt by Ukrainians as their country is devastated by a brutal and unprovoked Russian invasion.

Terre Haute is 8,175 miles from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. People here and across America want to help Ukrainians somehow, despite the distance.

In this consumption-based economy, many people assume that their greatest individual impact might be their purchasing power. They understand, buy products made in Ukraine and avoid those made in Russia.

John Talbott understands such thinking. He is director of the Center on Education and Research in Retail at Indiana University Kelley School of Business and also teaches as a lecturer at IU. Consumer decision-making is part of his expertise. Buy-Ukrainian, avoid-Russian has a certain appeal.

“I think it is [from] an overwhelming feeling that the world feels – ‘What can we do? This horror is unfolding before our eyes,” Talbott said Wednesday.

Finding and buying products made in Ukraine and snubbing products from Russia can have a positive effect. The actual impact of this choice, however, may not match its feel.

“In both cases, the most important thing is that Russia is not even one of the [the United States’] 15 major trading partners,” Talbott said. “If you want to say, ‘I’m really going to put it on Russia by not buying their stuff,’ well, you’re probably already doing that.”

In fact, Russia is not even close to the top 15. The top three trading partners of the United States are, in order, China (which accounts for 15% of foreign trade with the United States), Mexico and Canada (14.4% each), according to the US Census Bureau. This trio is followed by Japan, Germany, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy, Brazil and the Netherlands. Russia ranks 22nd among the major trading partners of the United States. Ukraine ranks 69th, and Russia is actually its biggest trading partner (although that could change).

On top of that, some products that Americans assume come from Russia are not.

Brands of vodka bearing Russian names have been pulled from shelves in several states in protest against authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In fact, Russia controls just 1.3% of all vodka imports into the United States, according to statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and cited in a Forbes report last month.

Identifying the country of origin of beverage lines is an arcane proposition. The same Forbes report pointed out that tiny Latvia produces more imported vodka in the United States than Russia.

This includes the Stolichnaya brand, of Russian origin but made in Latvia, which is, to make matters even more confusing, owned by a Luxembourg group.

Yet consumers are ignoring these alleged Russian brands as a form of consumer protest.

“If people believe that and it makes the feeling better, then I guess that’s okay,” Talbott said.

He compared the impact of such a gesture to driving a few bags of recyclables to the recycling center in a gas-logged SUV. “You feel good and you’re doing something that makes a difference,” Talbott said.

One trend that Talbott sees as effective is for consumers to boycott brands that don’t interrupt sales in Russia.

The most effective way to help Ukrainians in times of need.

“Look out for the UNICEF fund that pays for food, medical supplies and other forms of support for Ukraine and spend money there,” Talbott said.

UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) is one of 23 humanitarian organizations that responded to the war in Ukraine, according to USAID’s International Disaster Information Center. UNICEF’s relief effort in Ukraine can be accessed online at unicef.org/ukraine/en. To see other humanitarian organizations, go to the USAID list at cidi.org/disaster-responses/ukraine-crisis/.

Certainly, people who also want to put extra effort to find products made in Ukraine can do so. There are possibilities.

Agricultural products from Ukraine and imported by the United States totaled $143 million in 2019, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. America imports Ukrainian fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils, snacks and dairy products.

Ukraine produces its own vodka, and Nemiroff and Khor are two of the most common brands. Caviar from Kyiv-based Ukraine Caviar Berry is also popular and explained on its Facebook page (facebook.com/ukrainian.caviar.berry/). There are clothing manufacturers, like Zerno (see online at zerno.fashion/). But many of these companies’ online pages and websites were last updated on Feb. 23, before the Russian invasion.

At the moment, the Ukrainian people need support in the form of humanitarian aid. “The best way to do that is to support a charity with a 100% transmission rate,” Talbott said.

A prayer for the peace and freedom of Ukrainians with this donation would also help.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]

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