Ethics of (Product) Red


Would someone please turn down the volume on the self-righteousness? No, not the self-righteousness of rockstars or save-the-world types (where you’d expect it), but the self-righteousness of critics of the (Product) Red project.

For those of you who’ve managed not to hear of it, Red is a project that has various companies offereing “Red” versions of their products, and a portion of the profits go to buying AIDS drugs for needy Africans. I’ve already blogged twice this year on this topic (here and here.) I thought I had said enough, but over the last week the project has been in the media spotlight again, and there’s been another wave of cynicism & criticim in response. So, here I go again.

Here are just a few of the criticisms, gleaned & summarized from various editorials & blogs, along with some quick responses:

“Hey, this isn’t about doing good! These companies are making money! First, who ever said doing good and making money can’t possibly go hand-in-hand, ever? Second, supporters of the project (including some of the companies involved) have been very clear that profits are what is going to (hopefully) make this project last, so that it can do good in the long-run. Giving generously, out of the goodness of one’s heart, is a wonderful thing. But generosity has its limits. Volunteers run out of steam. The public is fickle: it’s hard to keep people interested in helping after the band has left the stage at the latest fundraiser. But a project that harnesses the productive & organizational power of corporations, along with the avarice and egos of consumers, might — just might — make a sustainable contribution.

“Consumerism is the problem, not the solution.” Nice slogan, but no. Consumerism didn’t cause AIDS, and it generally doesn’t cause famine. Consumerism may be A problem, but it’s not THE problem. We North Americans and Europeans have money (money that could do a lot of good if transferred to Africa), and one thing we’re terrifically good at is spending it on consumer goods. So, maybe consumerism IS the solution.

“It’s up to the drug companies to save Africa. They’ve got lots of money.” Three responses, here. One: having a lot of money doesn’t automatically result in an overriding obligation to use it to help strangers. That may sound cold, but there just isn’t any evidence of either a) philosophical consensus or b) general social agreement that such an obligation exists. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be good for pharmas to do more, just that it’s hypocritical to expect too much, when most of us in affluent societies do so much less than we could. Two: the money the big pharmas have doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to their shareholders. They are no more allowed to just turn it over to causes — even good ones — than are auto makers or software companies. Three: from a practical point of view, just how much good do you think it will it do to wait until the consciences of the big pharmaco’s kicks in? (If you think I’m just soft on Pharma, see here and here.)

“Corporations are just doing this (and it’s too damned little!) in order to buy our forgiveness for all the bad things they’ve done, and continue to do.” Sure, maybe some of them are participating in Red for that reason. Who knows? Probably not all are. But we should certainly be careful about being too forgiving for genuine wrongdoing. No company should be able to buy its corporate soul out of purgatory that cheaply. But saying that these companies shouldn’t be doing this at all, or that we shouldn’t contribute through our purchases, seems like ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face.’

“There are better, more direct ways to help. Don’t buy products…just donate!” Fair enough. Truth is, though, that it doesn’t happen, at least not enough. And there are no indications that that’ll change any time soon. So, any other great ideas?

In the end, I think (Product) Red is an interesting project. Most of us don’t do nearly as much as we could, nor nearly as much as we arguably ought, to help those in need. If this project works (i.e., if it saves lives), I for one won’t be much concerned that the project achieved its noble ends by the dirty, dirty means of asking people to buy things they like.

Links to Critics of Red
African’s Poor Had the Best Week Ever by Richard Kim, blogging for The Nation
“Seeing (RED) Over Challenge to Celebrity Charity”, by syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved

4 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    This was a very good article. It stated out all the main pionts, and was very clear. Although I do have one question, and that is, how much of each product sold, say from Apples iPods, make it to the (Product) Red company/brand? And does all of that money make it to Africa to help those in need? or is it a small percent?Thanks Again!!

    • Nicole on

      50% of all the profit from (RED) products goes to project (RED)

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Good question — in fact, those are precisely the sorts of questions you ought to ask about any venture that claims to be contributing to a cause you value.I don’t recall the details, but I’m sure they’re available on the Red website.

  3. Anonymous on

    I checked it out, and it did have the some information, but I decided to dig deeper..and I found this; RED says that “it costs just 40 cents to fund the two pills a day needed to keep someone with HIV in Africa alive.” This estimate seems to be based on the $148 per year it costs to provide a fixed dose combination of drugs. So, at $0.40 a day, two weeks worth of antiretroviral therapy works out to a donation of about $5.60 from a T-shirt that costs $28 But from other providers, they are only give $0.05 of what they make to help the people..and to me..it sounds that ‘that’ spacific company is just in it for the marketing..and that changes the rules. So all in all, you MUST do your reaserch before you help out a charity organization.-By the way, I am a student at Divine Child High School Dearborn Michigan, and I am writing a speech on charities and how much of thier money actually goes to there cause.Thanks Again for this Article andHAPPY NEW YEAR!!


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