Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Buying for a Cause

Is purchasing products associated with relief causes aimed at helping those in need, or just feeding corporate profits?

Today it has become easier than ever to help worthy causes. Simply by buying a t-shirt from the Gap or an iPod, you can help support the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa. Alternatively, you can support Breast Cancer research by purchasing any number of items associated with the pink ribbon campaign. With so many companies jumping on the charity bandwagon, it makes a person wonder, where is all this money going? Is the money you spent on the pink ribbon scarf, pair of TOMS shoes or product RED item actually going where it should, or is it simply increasing the company’s profit margin?

While no one can argue that providing needy children with shoes or people with medication to fight HIV and AIDS is not a worthy cause, many consumers have concerns about how their money is being used and how much is actually benefitting the people. In many cases, this information can be found on the websites of the organization that either supports a campaign such as product RED, or that has created the product movement, such as TOMS shoes.

The RED campaign is supported by a wide range of companies and products. Everything from Laptops by Dell, apparel from the Gap, iPods by Apple, even coffee from Starbucks can help with the fight against AIDS. According to the RED website,, RED partners and sponsored events have contributed more than $150 million to date. This money goes to Global Fund sponsored programs on the ground in Africa which provide medicine and support to communities and people living with HIV/AIDS. The RED website clearly states that no money is taken from this campaign for overhead of RED or the Global Fund. This is important information to know, but how much money goes from the sale of each product to RED?

In a February 2008 article by Ron Nixon in the New York Times, Susan Smith Ellis, the chief executive of RED explained that companies pay RED a licensing fee to label their products, they then pay a percentage of the sales to RED. The exact percentage that the company pays depends on each item and company. A quick trip to the products section of the RED website can give some information on how much is going from the sale of certain products. Gap for example donates 50% from the sale of each Gap product RED t-shirt to the Global Fund, Starbucks donates $1 USD, from the sale of its products, water bottles, tumbles and a specific blend of whole bean coffee, to the global fund. While this information is included in the write-up about Starbucks and Gap products, not all donations are so clearly stated.

What is lacking is transparency for the average consumer. In his 2008 article, Ron Nixon argues that neither RED nor the companies would disclose how much revenue came from each product or company. While many people find this lack of disclosure frustrating, at the very least it can be said that product RED does generate revenue to help fight HIV/ AIDS. Unfortunately this same statement cannot be said for all charity associated causes.

Throughout the year it is easy to spot pink ribbon items, and other products associated with Breast Cancer awareness. This is especially true in the month of October, which has been named Breast Cancer awareness month. According to a January 2009 article by Marc Lallanilla for, no single person or company owns the copyright to the pink ribbon associated with Breast Cancer. This is troublesome to many consumers and supporters of the cause, because in theory any company could place the ribbon on their product without contributing anything to the cause.

Breast Cancer Action, an American group, started the “Think BeforeYou Pink” movement that encourages consumers to investigate the products that carry the pink ribbon. According to their website, many companies actually put a cap on how much they will donate, regardless of how many items, or how much revenue is brought in during the campaign. This was the case with White House Black Market, who sold Give Hope Jeans for $88 a pair, but capped their total donation at $200,000. Brest Cancer Action also states that in some cases; despite the item having a pink ribbon on the packaging, purchasing an item does not necessarily mean that a donation will be made. This was the case with Lean Cuisine; despite the pink ribbon logo on the box, the purchase of a meal did not result in a donation to a Breast Cancer foundation. Instead, a purchase of a pink lunchbox from the company’s website was required in order to make a donation.

While some companies do use these products as an advantage for their marketing Ken Berger, as stated in Marc Lallanilla’s 2009 article, says the majority of charities do very good work, and as with most things it is important to do your research and find out where your money is really going.

Fortunately not all these companies are charged with lacking in transparency. TOMS shoes began in 2006 after American traveler, Blake Mycoskie noticed that the children he met in Argentina didn’t have shoes to protect their feet. TOMS is based on a One for One formula, so every time you buy a pair, TOMS will donate a pair to a child in need. According to their website, as of September 2010 TOMS has given over one million new pairs of shoes to children in need.

While suspicion may make you wary of products claiming association with relief organizations, it is important to remember that information is sometimes only a click away. A quick trip to the company’s website may help to answer your questions. It’s up to you to decide if you’re happy standing behind this movement with your purchases or if you would like to contribute another way. In the end, a good question to ask yourself may be, “since I’m buying it anyway, isn’t it good that I can help someone at the same time?”

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