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All the sinners saints? Why Bono's (RED) can't redeem Western consumers

Gisele Bundchen and Masai warrior Keseme Ole Parsapaet in Amercan Express (RED) advert. Photo: <a href="">American Express</a>
Gisele Bundchen and Masai warrior Keseme Ole Parsapaet in Amercan Express (RED) advert. Photo: American Express

Product (RED) is a flawed market-based poverty solution that distracts from the need for genuine innovation in corporate business models, argue Brand Aid authors Lisa Richey and Stefano Ponte.

On the surface it seems a win-win equation. Celebrity-endorsed (RED) goods are produced by fashionable brands like Apple, Armani, Gap and Starbucks. Up to 50 percent of profits from the sale of these products goes to the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Consumers shop and "save" distant Africans. Participating corporations reap ethical kudos. And since 2006, (RED) has contributed $190 million to HIV and AIDS programs in Africa.

(RED) co-founder Bono, speaking at the brand’s Armani launch (scroll to 4:57), put it simply:

You buy a (RED) product over here. The (RED) company buys lifesaving drugs for someone who can’t afford them over there. That’s it. So why not shop until it stops? Why not try some off-the-rack enlightenment? You will be a good-looking Samaritan. Because sinners make the best saints.

But Richey and Ponte, authors of the book "Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World," make the case that the reality is more complex. (RED), in their view, is part of a damaging trend in philanthropy that links celebritized international development campaigning and western consumption. "Dying Africans" are saved by "designer goods." They argue that (RED) promotes consumerism over the needs of the people it is supposed to help because participating corporations do not have to alter their business model relative to production processes. And the western consumer’s involvement is limited to shopping rather than more active engagement. This transactional focus, Richey argues, is "the logical manifestation of the postmodern consumer striving for salvation and status." It's easy to be a shopping mall hero—all it takes is a swipe of your credit card. No need to face up to the root causes of poverty, such as fundamental inequities in trade and production.

Download the first chapter of "Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World" here (PDF).

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