Africa gets (RED) while American companies make green

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

A month ago, U2 lead singer Bono and Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, launched the marketing campaign of PRODUCT (RED) in the United States. PRODUCT (RED) is an effort to raise awareness about AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. This global effort would bring millions of dollars and resources to the women and children in Africa who cannot afford healthcare. The help will also target other impoverished countries, such as Rwanda and Swaziland, which together have already received $10.25 million in the past year.

Collecting million of dollars in contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, (RED) has aligned itself with several American companies including Gap, Apple, Converse, and Motorola. After joining with (RED), these companies have harnessed the wallets and emotional support of American consumers by marketing their PRODUCT (RED)-labeled items through advertisements in print and on television. American consumers can buy (RED) products from one of these fine retailers, and a “generous” portion of that cost will be given to the established Global Fund.

But, as a consumer, I’m concerned. Whatever happened to companies just simply donating to charity? Is it that unreasonable for companies not to profit from donating to a worthy cause, such as fighting AIDS in Africa? Apparently, it is.

In March, Gap publicly announced its devotion to Africa’s health problems by signing a five-year deal to sell (RED) products. On the surface, it appears that Gap genuinely cares about increasing the general welfare of Africans. Historically speaking, this isn’t the case. Gap has been manufacturing clothing in factories located in Africa for decades, in countries including South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, Madagascar, and Lesotho. And working conditions at these plants are — and have been — far from ideal. As recently as 2002, allegations became public that factory management at the Lesotho plant had interfered with the workers’ right to organize legally with the workers’ union. Coincidentally, Lesotho is the same place where the PRODUCT (RED) Gap T-shirt is being produced out of 100 percent African cotton. Gap’s ability to profit from the devastation in Africa is even more shocking. With a respectable 50 percent of Gap’s profits being contributed to the Global Fund, Gap has priced its PRODUCT (RED) clothing items from $28 to $350, with an average of about $60 or $70.

To become part of this growing population of “charitable” companies, Apple and Converse have also agreed to sell specific PRODUCT (RED) editions of their items. The special edition iPod Nano is priced at either $199 or $249 depending on capacity, and for every one sold, Apple will generously donate $10 to the Global Fund. Converse has specially designed its website to allow consumers to customize a shoe ranging from the color of the shoelace to the color of the stitching. The cost of each pair of shoes ranges from $47 to $295 and the average price is $150 per pair. Just like the other companies, Converse has generously agreed to give 5–15 percent of the net retail sales of these products to the Global Fund.

Have you seen a common theme yet among these companies? I assume that each company has benevolent intentions to help Africa, but based on the numbers and percentages, I cannot assume that helping Africa is all they are after. There is simply too much room for these companies to benefit financially. The result of this marketing campaign is that these American companies will increase their bottom line by selling products with a minimal percentage going to the Global Fund. For the $249 PRODUCT (RED) Nano, roughly 4 percent of the cost is actually going to the worthy cause. How can we as a society praise them for this practice? These companies are leveraging the buying power of Americans versus helping AIDS victims directly.

How can we as a society accept this practice of tying a continental tragedy into the manipulation of American consumers and their buying habits? What if every company partnered with a disease it wanted to fight against? Every viable item available in the marketplace would be marked up with a “donation tax.” A company’s ability to donate to charities shouldn’t hinge on Americans purchasing its products. And although this may be extreme, it’s not that far-fetched. The (RED) campaign plans to add several new companies to its list in the next year, and it has already signed with to start website advertising. If this campaign is successful, we can expect more of them in the future. The United States distinguishes itself among nations with its compassion and global aid. And other countries will take as much as they can when we are willing to foot the bill.