corporate responsibility health lifestyle shopping

A response from (RED)

I had a response from (RED) this week, which deserves better than to languish in the comments of my earlier post. Here it is:

We read your post “Shopping is not a solution – buy less, give more” and wanted to clarify some significant inaccuracies in your piece. In the second paragraph you mention that (RED) partners “give a small and undeclared percentage to combat AIDS in Africa.” Our partners do disclose the percentage that they contribute. For example, Gap contributes 50% of profits from the sale of (PRODUCT) RED items, while Emporio Armani contributes 40% and Converse directs between 5-15% of net wholesale sales directly to the Global Fund to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. All of this information is available on our web site in the partner sections,

In the third paragraph you incorrectly state that (RED) had spent $100 million on marketing while only generating $25 million for the Global Fund in year one. This is completely inaccurate. (RED)’s marketing comes from the existing marketing budgets of our partners, not from our organization. These are marketing dollars that would have otherwise been spent on selling products that give nothing back — instead, we’ve been able to re-direct those dollars to promote products that generate money to buy AIDS medicine in Africa. In addition, (RED) products have now generated more than $125 million for the Global Fund and 100% of this money goes to fund grants in Africa — no overhead, or marketing money, is taken out of this total.

(RED) was created to engage business and consumer power in the fight against AIDS in Africa and this new model has proven successful in engaging the private sector. Before (RED), the single largest private sector contribution to the Global Fund was $1 million dollars — in just three years we’ve increased that to $125 million. These funds translate directly to providing antiretroviral treatment and other support in Ghana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Rwanda.

We’re aware that (RED) is not the ONLY solution — it is just part of the solution. We work alongside non-profits, governments and NGOs in helping to address AIDS in Africa. This model is designed to give consumers a choice when they’re out shopping. If they are going to buy a t-shirt, cup of coffee, iPod or tennis shoes, they can buy (RED) — at no extra cost — and the company will contribute some of their profits. It is a beautiful way to intersect a process that occurs everyday and re-direct some of the energy to help save lives.

As more companies join the (RED) family, the contributions, and the awareness about HIV and AIDS, will continue to grow and therefore help saves thousands of lives of individuals in Africa that would otherwise be lost.

Susan Smith Ellis, CEO, (RED)


It’s great to hear back on this, and I have hastily cleared up the inaccuracies! It’s an interesting one. I deliberately refrained from writing about (RED) when it first came out because I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that made me feel uncomfortable about it. It may have just been the self-congratulatory advertising from the likes of American Express. Perhaps it’s the way it overstated its case, that ‘we are the people we’ve been waiting for’, because we’ll buy a red iPod instead of the normal white one. Or perhaps there’s a deeper issue here.

On the face of it, (RED) is a neat idea. It takes the everyday business of shopping, and inserts the potential for your consumer choices to contribute to the fight against AIDS. Africa wins, you win, the companies win, what’s not to like?

Part of it is that it’s criminal that the fight against AIDS requires this at all. We should be falling over ourselves to prevent and treat AIDS, rather than coaxing percentages out of corporations and wooing shoppers with celebrity endorsed fashion items. But, that’s the world we live in, and that’s not (RED)’s fault.

The bigger problem for me is consumerism as a whole. The (RED) scheme includes clothing from GAP, Converse shoes, Dell computers, Armani sunglasses, iPods and more. I don’t want to get into the individual ethics of the companies involved, but more generally:

  • According to Global Cool, we throw away 900,000 tonnes of clothing every year in the UK. As that rots down in landfill, that’s 8 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s to say nothing of the unsustainable way that cotton is grown, or the respiratory diseases suffered by third world cotton-pickers.
  • Likewise we replace our gadgets far too often. Much of our toxic electronic waste is subsequently dismantled with no health and safety regulations, in Africa.
  • UK shoppers have twice as much personal debt as the average European, a grand £33,000 for every adult, up from £17,000 in 2000.

In other words, (RED) has done well to generate funding from consumer products, but shopping is not a benign activity. It is this that makes me uncomfortable, that something that is causing harm to us, to others, and to the environment, is used to do something good. It’s that confusion of charitable virtue and unsustainable consumption that makes (RED) something of a paradox – I know I don’t need an Armani wallet, but it’ll save lives in Africa.

Of course, people are going to buy stuff anyway, so why not use it to raise money? Can we afford to be idealist about this, or do we just need to raise funds any way we can? Am I just being cynical?

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  1. It will be great if they could publish it using some Creative Commons licenses or Free Art License kind of license.

  2. Good to have their response published, and I liked your response to their response.

    I ordered a product RED laptop from Dell last year. Then I noticed that I could get the same model with a bigger hard disk, and more RAM cheaper if I moved away from RED. So I did. Not sure what my point is than to say that it isn’t necessarily straightforward to choose the RED version of what you were going to buy anyway, and the setup adds a complicating element of guilt to the buying decision. Not only was I making my one of my most expensive consumer purchases ever, I was chosing not to give to the poor at the same time.

    Just out of interest, what is the average debt if mortgages are not factored in? It doesn’t seem a particularly good metric for measuring debt as it stands.

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