Consumerism as activism?

November 8, 2006 at 5:00 pm (Michael's Posts)

In light of our recent discussions about the Global Fund, I want to bring up a novel new (well, not totally new but relatively new) fundraising technique. The (PRODUCT) RED campaign is the brainchild of Bono and it is committed to helping AIDS and TB patients in Africa. They channel African products through high-end retailers and bring some charity to these countries through a piece of the profits. Partnered with Gap, Apple, and a few other retailers, the RED project brings a philanthropic slant to shopping. Especially in times when money is short for these global intiatives, it’s great to have new sources and funders.
So why is it that something about the (PRODUCT) RED campaign bugs me? Maybe it’s my anti-consumerist slant. Maybe it’s that I feel that this kind of initiative doesn’t get at the root of the imbalance in the world. It’s not revolutionary. But is it a good enough step? In a way, it seems that campaigns like this reinforce the global order. Through the consumerism that exploits the splits in the first place, we will somehow repair the disparity? I have my skepticism. But throwing it out there to be discussed.



  1. misarita said,

    Michael, I agree that it is not particularly revolutionary. In the long run, I’d like to see some paradigm changes that address some of the underlying issues of inequality, closed markets, consumerism, and the like. I want the world to change their reckless and heirarchical view that some lives are worth more than others.

    It does seem to me that this helps to tap into a niche that otherwise wouldn’t know about/be interested in helping with health issues. Maybe I’m a romantic who likes the idea of Robin Hood-ing money from the rich to people who can channel it best to the poor. But the bottom line is that people may care enough to buy a slightly more expensive product where some of the proceeds go to health efforts. They don’t necessarily care enough not to shop at Walmart.

    I wonder what their criteria are for picking socially responsible products to support.

  2. Ryan said,

    I think it’s only right to feel slightly uneasy about this campaign.

    Yes, millions of dollars towards AIDS/HIV, TB and Malaria is a great thing. Some would say that the ends justify the means.

    However, not only is this campaign erasing the guilt from shopping, as Gisele put it, but it continues to exploit workers in other sectors.

    As far as I can tell, the only piece of clothing the Gap is currently selling that is made in an ethical factory in Lesotho, Africa is the INSPI(RED) t-shirt. So the rest of the product (red) clothes (and for that matter, the rest of the clothes in the store) are made where?

    Secondly, when Bobby Shriver says, “…have a cell phone? Get a red one!…” I stop and think about the precious metals (see Coltan) in these phones being mined in Africa and its effects on the populations in the DRC and elsewhere.

    Raising money for HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria should not come at the expense of others. Period. Be it sweatshop labor in Indonesia, or civil war in Africa.

    One possible solution? Instead of replacing your currently working cell phone/ipod/credit card/t-shirt with a red version, how about donating the money we would have spent on the newest trend of the season towards the organization of our choice, rather than to the multinationals and the G8 (global fund). There are plenty of used goods to go around, and plenty of companies that offer ethical alternatives for new purchases.

    Let us please consider our options for grassroots fund raising and try to rely less on corporate green-washing campaigns to mediate on our behalf.

    p.s. This is not intended as finger pointing or guilt tripping, but I do wish that we all try to keep each other accountable for the global consequences of our seemingly simple consumer actions.

  3. misarita said,

    Ryan, do you think that people are ready to give up their cell phones/ipods/credit cards/t-shirts and donate the money? I agree with you completely if we’re able to convince people to do that.

    But, if the consumer shops at the Gap or is going to buy their red shirt or, in essense, isn’t willing to change their consumption habits, does it do more harm than good to try and work in the system? I don’t know the answer, but it doesn’t seem as clear cut to me as avoiding the entire system. We’re all here writing because we care about these issues. Does the average consumer?

    It reminds me of the lecture from a public speaking class that I took at Brown where were doing a “Speech To Change An Action.” One of the points was that your action shouldn’t be so big that people won’t be willing to try. The average person wants to feel like their role is both managable and worthwhile. If you say “Never waste water every again,” the listener sees that as an impossibly large sacrifice and many won’t bother to try. So, instead you start with, “Don’t waste water for 2 days.” Then you take two days and make it four. And so on.

    So the question that I’m left with is whether it does more harm to work from within an unethical system that reaches more people or whether it is better to reach fewer people on purer ground.


  4. Ryan said,

    I agree that small steps are necessary, but I’m not sure that this is a step in the right direction. It seems to be making us into more passive consumers than we already were. And it’s making these multinationals looks amazing

    “Finally we can do good by shopping.” “Now we don’t have to feel any guilt for shopping.” etc, etc.

    It’s really murky territory as we all can see, and I’m not quite sure what to do with the argument “they are going to buy these things anyway.”

    Personally, I think the best case scenario is that Product (RED) actually does raise our awareness of the cause at hand while raising millions and also raises awareness of worker exploitation around the world. Would I prefer consumers to donate on a grassroots level, without the mediation of joinred? For some of us this is a reasonable demand, for the rest… hopefully this campaign is a good start towards recognizing global issues and not just a trend designed to help greenwash.

  5. msoule said,

    Ryan, I think that your point about greenwashing may be the most important. The participating companies need to be held to the highest standards of global economic practices (raising awareness about the metals used in the RED ipods, for instance, was a good move. Tell us more about that.). Gap should ONLY be using cotton produced in Africa for its clothing in the RED campaign. They should be out there showing that these goods are not only hip and good for global health but also promoting good practices.
    This campaign also has market economic justifications. The idea is that Bono is reaching out to the people who wouldn’t normally just write a check to the Global Fund but would go shopping for the Next Big Thing. Through the Next Big Thing, Bono figures we can get that check, via the Gap, to the Global Fund. It’s a good idea but not as pure as they come. Not totally foul, but with some trappings of global inequality.
    Let’s try to get them to come out with that and recognize it.
    The point of this campaign should be focused on raising awareness among these people so that they eventually don’t go through Gap and Apple but go straight to the Global Fund itself.
    How can we go about doing this?

    ps- Ryan, where did you find us? And thanks for jumping in!

    pps- Can we really get something going? Write Bono a letter? Or Gap?

  6. misarita said,

    Michael–you make one point that also came to me in reading the Medicine Abroad post. The truth is that there ISN’T a fixed pot of money for public health work. I think that it is our job at times to try to work with economic systems to find innovate ways of channeling more resources. But only if it doesn’t come at the expense of the collective public health soul (to be melodramatic). It reminds me of an idea that I heard once for creating incentives for vaccines like malaria and TB. The idea was that, instead of promising $5 billion to education, earmark that money and promise it to the first company/researcher who comes up with a vaccine that meets minimum standards of efficacy. I guess it is creating an artificial market. Michael, and others with more economics knowledge, could you weigh in? It seems like we can be thinking of mechanisms like this to work within the structures that exist with an eye to the possibility that the structures might need massive changing and revamping.

  7. msoule said,

    I realize that my previous comment wasn’t totally articulate. Thanks for getting at the core of what I was trying to say.
    It’s enlarging the market, just like a sale enlarges the market for a good. Say there’s a TV that’s really nice but most people aren’t willing to pay the price the retailer asks because the percieved benefits of owning the TV do not exceed the monetary costs of owning it.
    The retailer can put it on sale, lowering the price to a level at which, for some of the non-buyers, the benefits of owning this TV now exceed the costs.
    Now the benefits of owning a TV might be picture-in-picture, big screen, clear picture, fancy looks, etc.
    Let’s look at the logic for this campaign.
    The beenfits of giving money to the Global Fund are largely intangible. You get the satisfaction of knowing you helped very sick people in a part of the world that is far away who really, really needed your help. For those of us who can clearly visualize the suffering of these people, this is a deep, heartfelt satisfaction.
    Many American consumers (especially those in the income bracket consuming at places like Gap and Apple and Motorola) are not in touch with a clear vision of the suffering of AIDS and TB in developing countries. Therefore, this benefit is not something that pulls them to put money forth.
    However, The Next Big Thing (promoted by the ever-hip Bono, no less!) has clearer benefits. You can be hip AND come across as worldly and caring. These last parts are not the main benefits for these consumers. The first part is. But the last two aspects are enough to make them pay a premium for the products RED. So while the “donations” they are making may not be as large as other individuals’ donations, they are something to add to the ever-empty pot of money for global health.
    SO, the economics works out.
    BUT, we also do need to be cautious and aware. Sarah, you are absolutely right that these structures need revamping. We need to find a way to get companies to also highlight the larger inequalities that are implicit in their business. This is really a golden opportunity. I’m ok with greenwashing as long as the green soaks in a little bit. If Gap changes their cotton sourcing as a result of this campaign, I’d be happy. If Motorola uses environmentally conscious mines as a result, I’d be overjoyed. We just need to find a way to force them to make the connection. Is there one?
    Activists? Please chime in!

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