RED: Doing good without challenging current practices

Stefano Ponte et al. recently (2009) undertook some deeper analysis of Bono’s philantrophic ideas: „Bono’s Product (RED) Initiative: CSR that solves the problems of ‚distant others“ in Third World Quarterly (see also „Better (Red)TM than dead?“). Both articles analyse the RED initiative that the rockstar launched at Davos in 2006. Product RED is „a brand created to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by teaming up with iconic brands to produce RED-branded products“ (p.301). Companies such as Converse, Gap, Armani, Apple, Motorola participate by selling some of their products RED-branded. So far, $150 Mio. were raised and 1/2 Mio. people “like it” on facebook.

The article examines „how the corporations that are part of this initiative use RED to build up their brand profiles, sell products and/or portray themselves as both ‘caring’ and ‘cool’.“ It uses a heuristic analytical framework, which distinguishes two types of CSR (engaged and disengaged) and two locations of CSR activity beneficiaries (proximate and distant) (see table 1).Here are some of their main arguments:

  • The RED initiative is a form of ‚disengaged’ and ‚distant’ CSR: „It is relevant and important to look at RED both as a new way of thinking about aid financing and as a manifestation of CSR that does not question the core objective of profit-maximization. RED improves a company’s brand without callenging any of its actual operations and practices, and increases its value and perception.“ (p.314)
  • RED „pushes CSR back towards the disengagement that characterized the ‘old-style’ philantrophy it is framed against – but with a new funding mechanism based on consumption and co-branding“ (p. 313). But, in contrast to classical corporate philantrophy, in RED, „companies use ‘doing good’ to sell a particular set of products – profit is generated and donation is given at one and the same time“ (p.314) – sounds familiar…?!
  • Potential critique from the ‘distant’ beneficiaries is excluded – and local accountability is regarded as low, if a company fails to succeed.
  • Public contributions to the Global Fund remain much higher ($9.2 Bio in 01/2008) than private ones ($460 Mio in 01/2008).

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