What exactly is Product (RED)? According to the official website,
“Product (RED) is not a charity. It is not a cause. It is an idea.”
Launched by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006, the (RED) campaign defines itself as a business model which is designed to raise awareness and a sustainable flow of funds to the The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Private corporations agree to donate a portion of profit made on the sale of specific (RED) products directly to the Global Fund. These funds will then be used for the specific purpose of providing access to education, nutrition, counseling, medical services, and anti-retroviral medicine in Africa. Currently Product (RED) allocates it’s funds only to projects in Ghana, Lesotho, Rwanda and Swaziland, but there are plans to broaden their reach. Many popular businesses are already partners including American Express (UK only), Converse, Gap, Emporio Armani, Dell, Windows, Apple and Hallmark, with many more vying to get involved.
The basic idea is that for the same price of a comparable good, a consumer can purchase what they want and the company will make a contribution to the Global Fund. The percent of profit donated varies by partner and product. For example, at the Gap, 50% of sales on (RED) products, such as t-shirts that read, “Inspi(RED),” is donated. For every (RED) laptop computer sold, Dell and Windows will donate $50. Some companies are less specific about the percentage of sales that is actually donated but the philosophy remains the same throughout the stores: ‘lives can be saved through shopping.’ Buy a pair of shoes, save a life. Buy an iPod, save a life. The idea is not completely unappealing or inherently wrong. To date (RED) partners have generated more than $110 million for the Global Fund, money that would have otherwise just gone to the corporations. Still there are some unsettling aspects of this business model.
Product (RED) buys into contemporary feelings of wanting to get something for what we give and of wanting it to be convenient. It makes fighting AIDS trendy. The newest partner, Starbucks, is donating $.05 for every one of its three special seasonal beverages sold between December 1, 2008 and January 2, 2009. The Starbucks website states “It’s easy to do good”. And it is! All you have to do is spend $3.50 on a small peppermint mocha. You’ll get a sticker to place on a map of Africa to show your contribution and go on with your day feeling good about your 5 cent donation. 5 cents is nothing to scoff about. With as many drinks as Starbucks sells, it adds up, but what is the real message being sent? Who is really benefiting? Companies get to make a minimal donation and make themselves look really good. Consumers get to feel even better about their coffee and new clothes. It’s possible that a few of these consumers will be motivated to find out more about the AIDS epidemic in the developing world. They may visit a website and educate themselves, possibly making a larger donation in the future or just spreading their new knowledge to others. But how many purchasers of (RED) products will do this? How many others will feel they have done their part by purchasing their Product (RED) iPod, instead of a blue one?
Product (RED) is not necessarily a bad thing. I myself have purchased two (RED) iPods and love them. Funds are being raised to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Still, I find this whole idea misses the point. Money is being donated while ignoring the root of the problem. Product (RED) uses the promotion of excessive consumerism to fight a problem that has been partially caused by excessive consumerism. It does not lead United States and European citizens to question global stratification and what their role in it might be. Instead it allows them to feel like they are doing something to help by shopping, rather than motivating them to make real changes. Money can always be given, but it’s hard to imagine any real improvements in the quality of living for everyone around the world without real changes to the economic and cultural systems we live in, including changes in how people think and act and view themselves as members of their neighborhood, country and world. A change between buying a Product (RED) t-shirt at the Gap or the plain gray shirt next to it on the shelf is not this kind of change. Product (RED) has the potential to raise awareness and make people think about global issues, but it also has the potential to make them feel satisfied with the way things are and the small part they are doing by purchasing a gingerbread latte at Starbucks. So for Product (RED) and other business models aspiring to follow it’s example, rather than a green, go for it, I give a yellow: use sparingly and with caution.
By Ruth Berger, VP MSU Chapter