(REDWASHING): Will thousands of red iPods, T-shirts and cellphones really make the world a better place?

Voices buzz throughout the room. Students are perched on chairs and tables like budgies, chatting excitedly about their ideas. I’m moving from group to group, listening in on their conversations and, occasionally, prompting their discussions.

Printed in the November/December 2007 issue of Unlimited Magazine.
Written by Arnica Rowan.

It’s an afternoon class at Lakeland College in Vermilion, near Lloydminster, where I taught for five years in the School of Business and Tourism. My adventure tourism students, never quiet because they’d rather be in kayaks than a classroom, are working on their business plans. They’ve created fictional businesses and are mapping out their approaches to marketing, human resources and financial management. Today’s assignment is to decide how their companies are going to contribute to their communities.

I hear lots of possibilities while drifting around the room: sponsor a little league team, donate a percentage of proceeds to Ducks Unlimited, offer discounted holidays to low-income, single-parent families. Corporate social responsibility or CSR isn’t a difficult concept to explain to twentysomethings – if you depend on a community to make your livelihood, you should give something back in return. My students take this as a given. I challenge them to think about which charities would be the most meaningful to their make-believe customers, about which connections will also yield strong financial returns.

When the conversation begins to lull, I draw their attention to my PowerPoint presentation at the front of the room. “Doing good in your community,” the slide says, “is also good for business.”

“Let me introduce you to another concept,” I say as I settle onto one of the tables. “I call it ‘redwashing.’ It’s similar to greenwashing. Has anybody here heard that term?”

Amanda, a hemp-wearing, dreadlocked student, jumps in. “It’s when companies who aren’t really that environmentally conscious hype up their one green project and try to paint the entire company with a green brush.” She smiles, then frowns. “Pisses me off.”

“Exactly,” I say. “I’d like to show you some companies that I think are redwashing. In other words, businesses that are taking way too much credit for their social contributions and getting more bang out of their social marketing buck than the charities.”

I click on the slide and a red iPod flashes onto the screen. “Apple, Motorola, the Gap and three other companies formed something called the (Red) campaign last year,” I begin. (The round brackets are part of their branding, but I’m not going to use them from here on in. Nor will I type things like 🙂 which piss me off.) “They developed and promoted new red coloured products, and some of the proceeds are donated to the Global Fund for the fight against AIDS. When you buy a red iPod, $10 goes to the Global Fund, which is a huge private-public partnership that was formed in 2002 to step up the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.”

“How much money did those companies raise?” interrupts my Self-Appointed Principle Antagonist (SAPA), an intelligent, mutinous, second-year student.

“Well, that’s my beef,” I answer. “With celebrity sponsorship out the yin-yang and a full-hour promotion on Oprah, the Red campaign only donated $11 million last year. Motorola alone cleared $3.7 billion in profits. They donated $7 million from their red cellphone sales. I think these companies have made a marketing mountain out of a donation molehill.”

The students murmur amongst themselves.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t go out and buy a new iPod just because it’s red,” says Amanda. “I’d just donate $10 instead.”

“Yeah, but you bought one of those Aldo necklaces,” SAPA, her roommate, counters, referring to the leather string and metal dog tag Amanda wears around her neck – a $5 “empowerment” tag sold by the shoe company, with 100% of net proceeds going to an organization called YouthAIDS. “Same dif,” continues SAPA. “It just makes you feel good that you’re buying something that goes to a cause. You probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise.”
One month earlier. My friend Susan scoops up some doro wat with a piece of injera. She smells the Ethiopian stew appraisingly and pops it into her mouth. “I am so excited about seeing Stephen Lewis tonight!” she exclaims between mouthfuls. Sitting across the table, I grin with anticipation: sounds geeky, but I’m excited, too. It had taken me a couple of weeks to convince my husband to buy me tickets to hear Lewis speak in Edmonton for my birthday. He was skeptical about driving two hours after work to hear some guy talk about AIDS, Africa and social change, and then driving two hours back.

Lewis, who served as the UN’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa for five years, drew an enormous amount of global attention to the AIDS crisis by working with celebrities and politicians, and by relentlessly working the media spotlight. Featured on the Massey Lectures series on CBC radio, he introduced me and thousands of other Canadians to the crisis on the other side of the globe. In 2006, there were approximately 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in five people has HIV; the region has 10% of the world’s population and more than 60% of all HIV cases. The average person who contracts HIV is like me: young, a woman, although she probably has a couple of kids. What really moved me are the 15 million orphans AIDS has left behind. Lewis, with his passion and eloquence, changed me. Because of him, I feel connected to the crisis.

Susan came with us to hear Lewis because she wanted to become an activist in her own community and was looking for inspiration. My friend Jan Scott and her daughter Beckie met us there. Beckie is best known for winning Olympic gold as a cross-country skier, but her mom is most proud of her volunteer work with Right To Play, an organization that brings sport and play to poor children in Africa. This was a chance for Jan to support Beckie’s passion and fuel her own activist fire.

Stephen Lewis took the stage with his son Avi, a CBC Newsworld host and filmmaker. For the next couple of hours, they spoke about social change, about holding multinational corporations and the world’s governments accountable to a higher standard. They condemned corporations that are not pulling their own weight, and I was surprised to hear them slam the Red campaign.

We drove home full of enthusiasm. Yet the next day over coffee at Susan’s house, we all felt varying degrees of helplessness. Could our small donations and volunteering really have any significant effect on big-world problems? What power do we really have as individual citizens, compared to governments and companies?

There is little quarrel in the corporate community about the importance of giving back to society, but there is a lot of debate about how, and how much. Ideally, CSR campaigns are fuelled by good intentions and the results are reported transparently to the public. In a perfect world, donations benefit the receiver more than the giver, and grow as a company’s bank account swells. Unfortunately, CSR initiatives rarely satisfy all these requirements. To determine if a company is greenwashing its environmental projects, we hold them accountable to certain standards. Why don’t we have the same benchmarks for CSR projects? I suggest we examine health, arts and education contributions for redwashing with the same intense scrutiny as environmental projects.

Let’s start with the Red campaign. Dreamed up by rock star/advocate Bono, its premise is that companies can actually make money by selling new branded products to well-intentioned consumers and then donating partial proceeds to the Global Fund. The trouble I have is that for all the celebrity sponsorship – such as those red rooms at the Oscars, where actors posed in front of red products while waiting for their names to be called – corporate participants have spent more money on marketing than on donations. I spoke to Lewis on the phone this past summer and he summed up my feelings. “I think the motives Bono has are entirely honourable,” he said, “but I suspect the companies concerned have benefited more than the Global Fund.”

Lewis argues that large companies which do not donate from their existing revenue base are “delinquent” in their responsibility to the public. He had harsh words for both G8 governments and multinationals, just as he’d said at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, where he used the term mass murder: “It’s hard, in the face of the annihilating human toll, not to be driven to linguistic extremes. This issue of resources makes or breaks the response to the pandemic.”

So how much money is enough? Lewis, now a global health professor at Ontario’s McMaster University, says that companies should be held to the same standard as government, that they should give 0.7% of their after-tax profits to the Global Fund. “If the principle spread,” he said, “the dollars would mount unto the billions.” He feels that percentage is a particularly important target for corporations which have extracted their wealth from Africa’s mineral, diamond, oil and other resources – and for pharmaceutical companies that “resisted the lowering of drug prices for an unconscionable length of time.”

Lewis doesn’t talk much about small, home-grown business, though. This past summer, when my husband Jason and I moved from eastern Alberta to the Okanagan Valley in B.C., I launched a business selling dog cookies at the farmers’ market in Kelowna. Following my own advice to my former students, I donated 5% of my net profits to a relevant charity, the local SPCA. If I followed Lewis’s suggestion, I’d be mailing another cheque to the Global Fund as well.

That wouldn’t be a lot of money. But if you consider that one random Fortune 500 company, say, Exxon Mobil, made $39.5 billion in earnings last year… well, its $27 million contribution would certainly buy a lot of anti-viral meds for the Global Fund. I don’t mean to pick on Big Oil. Exxon has actually spent $40 million fighting malaria since 2000. But as Lewis would say, it could do better.
“You should see this,” reads an e-mail from a friend. I click on the link and a YouTube video pops up. Bono is promoting the July 2007 Vanity Fair. I listen intently as he explains why he guest-edited that issue, which was focused on Africa; he even proposed changing the name for a month to Fair Vanity. “That’s what this issue is all about,” he said. “Trying to bring some sex appeal to the idea of wanting to change the world.”

Sex appeal? How about the intrinsic motivation of trying to do some good? I can feel my face flush as I start to get angry.

I click on another link, an ad for the Red campaign. A scantily clad woman shakes her thang in a red cheerleader outfit to hip-hop music. A caption that reads “saving lives is sexy” flashes across the screen, followed by the Motorola symbol in red parentheses.

Now I’m mad. How can companies “underestimate the decent and charitable motivations in normal human beings,” as Lewis critiqued? To varying degrees, we North Americans are intelligent world citizens. We care about others in hunger and in pain. As Lewis said to me, “there is a tremendous feeling for difficult international issues” in the Canadian public’s heart. In an interview on CBC’s The Current alongside Lewis, environmentalist David Suzuki argued that the Canadian public is far ahead of policy makers in its concern for the environment and its willingness to act. Lewis echoed this, saying, “I’ve felt that way about HIV and AIDS as well. I’ve felt that way about poverty in the developing world. I get the sense that the Canadian public is genuinely engaged and even agitated about these major international issuesÉ. There is a sense of disconnect between the public and the political leadership.”

“In Canada, there is an extraordinary wellspring of goodwill for others,” Lewis told me on the phone. We give when we feel authentically connected to a cause. More than 98% of the money donated to the Stephen Lewis Foundation last year came from individual donors. The Survey of Canadian Giving, Volunteering and Participating, conducted in 2004 by Statistics Canada, says that 85% of Canadians aged 15 and over give to charity every year. On average, each Canadian donates $400, for a total of $8.9 billion given to registered religious, health and social organizations. Why do we give? According to the survey, we’re motivated by compassion for people in need, belief in a cause, and a responsibility to contribute to the community.

Not only do I find the link between saving the world and looking sexy insulting, I also think that underestimating your consumers is a crucial business mistake. James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, whose 1999 marketing manual The Experience Economy made waves, argue that “authenticity” is the primary decision-making factor for consumers. In their brand new book, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, Gilmore and Pine insist that projecting an authentic, real image of your company is crucial when your consumers are as savvy and analytical as, say, my 20-year-old students. Today’s customers can smell a phony product a mile away.

Yet even if the average Canadian doesn’t associate saving the world with waving red pompoms, we can’t deny that we’re affected by pop culture, by what we see on television. Lina Capozzi was sitting on her sofa at home watching Oprah the day Bono launched the Red campaign across North America. She watched the famous duo run from store to store, arm-in-arm, buying red T-shirts and phones. More importantly, she listened to the information about the AIDS pandemic and was moved. She felt compelled to act.

Capozzi, a sales rep with Stogryn Sales out of Edmonton, saw a connection between the Red campaign and the red-coloured hair-care tools she was wholesaling to salons. She contacted HIV Edmonton and asked if she could use their logo in her advertising. She came up with a “See Red” slogan. Then she drove from salon to salon, offering curling irons and blow-dryers at a $10 discount to retailers. In turn, the products were sold to consumers at the regular retail price, with signs explaining exactly where the $10 difference was being donated.

“Everybody was happy to do it,” Capozzi tells me. “Customers, salons, our company, and HIV Edmonton.” The campaign earned a little more than $1,000 for HIV Edmonton – that’s over 100 blow dryers and curling irons – and gave Capozzi “a sense of satisfaction from helping a local cause.”

Lewis is somewhat dismissive about the effectiveness of TV and commercial products in bringing attention to crises as such as AIDS. “People who need corporations to become aware,” he says, “are not people who are going to have any long-lasting commitment to the issue.” Yet after speaking with Capozzi, I’m not so sure he’s right. She was already planning another campaign for HIV Edmonton.
Back to my classroom in Vermillion. Self-Appointed Principle Antagonist is challenging me again. “What’s the point of being so critical, Arnica?” he asks. “I mean, you may not like how much money the Red campaign has generated, but that’s $11 million more for fighting AIDS than there was before. They could have done nothing. You know only $10 from your iPod is going to AIDS when you buy it. Plus, so many people are more aware of the cause because of the red T-shirts.”

The class slows down while I look to the ceiling and mull his words over.

“You’re right, of course,” I say, lowering my eyes to meet his. “But you are the businesspeople of tomorrow. If we don’t discuss parameters for responsible corporate giving in this room, if we don’t talk about why and how your businesses contribute, when will it come up?”

My squint is matched by his squint. I can feel the students considering and weighing their opinions. I wonder whether they can reconcile their trendy T-shirts with their own values about helping others in need. I wonder what their conclusions are.

Finally, SAPA shrugs his shoulders. We leave the argument unfinished.

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