Some charity campaigns encourage people to purchase novelty items at retail stores for money and then claim to pass the proceeds on to a number of charities.
But such campaigns are emblematic of a prevalent yet incredibly problematic approach to philanthropy and humanitarianism: If we were to consume junk with no discernible use, we can help others we will never see while we continue to enjoy, and not question, our own privilege. A obvious alternative to this sort of campaign fundraising is to donate directly to nonprofit charities, like Giving Center, and cut out the middleman.
People who buy such products are well-meaning, hoping their purchase will make a difference. However, in turning charity into consumption, corporations and nonprofits also distract from how the current unequal global economic system lend to the very challenges these campaigns aim to address. Well-meaning individuals consume more to save the world, inadvertently perpetuating pressing global challenges in the process.
Consumerism targeted campaigns are typical of “brand aid” initiatives that engage consumers in low-cost heroism as a way to funnel good intentions into politically unquestioning and commercially lucrative options. Branding like this is about making companies look good while also encouraging consumers to spend. Only a fraction of consumer purchases actually go toward these charitable funds. The remainder, of course, goes to the manufacturer.
Several studies show this kind of charity branding actually works, for companies. Consumers prefer companies that support charitable missions, so corporations get involved in order to improve brand awareness and sales. One study demonstrated that tying branding to a specific cause increased profits and “increased sales for the entire line of products connected to the brand.”
“Brand aid” campaigns are all about furthering corporate interest without necessarily affecting a meaningful change. Add celebrities into the mix to promote the campaign, and you have a recipe for performing corporate social responsibility success.
Contemplate the famous (Product) RED’s motto: “Eat. Drink. Shop. Live (RED). Save Lives.” Bono,U2’s leading man, is the chief RED mascot. From the beginning, the plan was to ensure consumers felt that the act of donating was “effortless,” at the same time generating corporate profits and philanthropic giving. Corporations can sell RED products to benefit AIDS relief in Africa, all the while remaining entirely disengaged from the day-to-day initiatives the campaign supports.
Never mind the poor working conditions in the factories responsible for manufacturing RED products. (Product) RED’s impact is only measured by the number of pills it helps distribute or amount of merchandise it helps to sell, rather than by how it addresses the drivers of poverty that put people at risk for HIV/AIDS in the first place.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is another campaign that demonstrates this point. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Melissa Etheridge spur awareness through their own personal stories. Every October, a staggering number of pink products are available for purchase, all associated to the ubiquitous Pink Ribbons. For example, you are able to purchase a pink garbage can, and $5 goes to breast cancer. Estée Lauder also has a campaign to donate 20 percent of the price of their pink commemorative pin to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. When compared to the profits made on these goods, the donations to charity are meager.
Sure, these products might spread public awareness of pressing issues. Nevertheless, they do so through promoting problematic forms of consumerism as the mode of ending problems such as disease or poverty. In aiming their branding and marketing around critical societal issue, corporations advance self-serving industrial agendas, thus avoiding social backlash.
Exactly what proportion of the collected funds raised gets allocated to the people who need it, and how? How are the needy recipients selected, and what happens to those individuals who are left out? Are these types of campaigns addressing the driving factors of poverty, environmental destruction and disease, and if so, is this being monitored?
This type of information is simply not available for brand aid type campaigns, but these are questions that actually matter.
To be sure, the Breast Cancer Action organization dubbed the October breast cancer awareness campaigns industry “pinkwashing,” corporations who produce pink ribbon products while at the same time are investing in cancer-causing products.
Why should we hold governments responsible for taking care of people when consumer philanthropists are able to buy stuff they do not need with the promise, backed by very little data, that it will by some means “help out”? The stress on nonprofit charity and philanthropy draws attention away from how government policies contribute to some of the very problems that philanthropy aims to address.
Worldwide strides toward a supposed free market have increased, not decreased, global inequalities. Meantime, governments are cutting back social safety nets as they continue to give tax breaks to corporations at home and sign free trade agreements that can damage workers abroad.
These are the very same structures that put people at risk. Pink trash cans, red iPhones and other such products can not fix them, and they may even make things far worse.
People can also donate directly to nonprofit charities such as Giving Center, and that charitable donation, unlike the purchase of unnecessary products, is completely tax deductible. Keep away from the websites and companies who feed into the consumer philanthropy model who do not disclose how much they receive, and do not list how much of the raised funds actually go to charity, either. There is simply to little transparency.
Of course, governments are not going to reform themselves overnight, and until they do, direct donations to nonprofits may fill the holes.
It’s worth asking: Are these consumption-based initiatives doing the most good by goading people to consume what they do not need? Many charities like Giving center provide essential tools and are worthy of support.
The most important thing to keep in mind is: If someone is trying to sell you an item to support a cause, say “No, thank you.” Donate directly instead. You will know where the money went, you will know you have made a diffrence, and you won’t have to do the pesky math on the cost-benefit of buying something you really don’t need.
You can also do other things to end poverty, fight disease or save the world. Give regular donations to charities you appreciate, volunteer in your community and vote for candidates whose policies are pro-poor and pro-environment.