Can humanitarian causes be both marketable and ethical?

An interview by AidEx with Dr. Lisa Ann Richey who has examined the relationships between global values and local practices of humanitarianism extensively, all about the commodification of compassion and how we should be engaging in causes if we want to make a real difference. 

How do you suggest companies could support good causes and meaningful change without exploiting good consumer intentions for their own corporate interests?

Ethical business is a good cause. Companies could take seriously compliance with international standards for labour, the environment, sustainability and non-discrimination, for example. And then they could communicate these practices transparently to consumers.  Engaging in their core businesses ethically would attract consumers. States and civil society organisations like cause NGOS and consumer groups could work to raise awareness of around core issues and build up expectations of ethical practice. Imagine a world where companies are trying to outperform each other ethically as a way of distinguishing their brand through adopting the highest standards and implementing them in their core business practices. There is also the rather fundamental issue of paying their fair share of taxes.

Do you think corporations should even be in the business of charitable campaigning at all?

Sure. Corporations could offer paid time-off for their employees to work pro-bono for the charities of their choice—without reporting these to the company or using them for promotional campaigns.  Imagine how well-resourced small NGOs might become with the marketers from Coca-Cola working directly for them to achieve the NGO’s own goals.

What measures do you think could prevent ‘brand aid’ and the ‘commodification of compassion’?

I don’t really see these are ‘preventable ills’ but more as a conflation of societal values and shifts in who we hold responsible for helping Others.  If foreign aid were considered a worthwhile investment for global development and peace and an ethical obligation for countries whose economies were built through the exploitation of others, then there would be no need for brand aid.  Businesses would be responsible for making profit for shareholders, celebrities for entertainment and causes would be supported by engaged civil society organisations and individuals. But our current global disconnections between individuals, civil society, states and global organisations leaves many people and causes without any safety net—whether they are combatting poverty, illness or natural disaster.

How effective are celebrity advocates in helping good causes? Or are they merely pushing corporate agendas?

Richey, Lisa Ann, Ponte, Stefano, & ProQuest. (2011). Brand aid: Shopping well to save the world. Minneapolis Minn: University of Minnesota Press.

In a forthcoming article I wrote with Dan Brockington, we identified a mere 6 tropes of celebrity humanitarianism that covers the spectrum of what celebrity do-gooding in the international realm looks like—aid celebrities, global mothers, strong men doing good, diplomats, entrepreneurs and Afropolitans, In all these tropes, celebrity humanitarianism offers a politics that is based on authenticity not accountability. Celebrity humanitarianism exemplifies an underlying tension as it relies on the popularisation of a crisis to enlist more ‘caring,’ yet more caring may not result in better practical care.

We conclude that: ‘In a humanitarian context dominated by technicians who stop suffering in the most efficient way possible, celebrity humanitarians manifest the affective desire for humanitarianism to work. Celebrity humanitarians act as emotional sovereigns by performing solutions— technology, love, power, institutions, money and awareness— for solving what might otherwise be considered (and may in fact remain) intractable global political problems.’

Celebrity humanitarianism is a way of doing humanitarian politics as usual. Celebrity humanitarianism privileges special interests and corporate lobbyists in ways that characterize Colin Crouch’s description of post-democracy.

How should consumers respond to products attached to good causes – “just say no”? Surely if we want to buy these company’s products anyway, then the percentage of money donated to a good cause is just a harmless bonus? What should they do instead and how can consumers become more aware of cost-benefits?

Each and every consumption choice should give the most pleasure—a typical utilitarian approach—the greatest good to the greatest number. Consumers should consider each and every purchase within the context of a crisis of global over-consumption for the carry-capacity of our planet.  Fine if you are going to buy an iphone anyway that you buy the Product RED iphone that gives a small percentage of the profits to support The Global Fund. But do not get sucked into the marketing that this choice makes you a hero, that you are saving Africans or that your purchase is actually ethical activism. It is a luxury consumption purchase that is being marketed to you in a way that threatens to distract you from thinking about other important factors like do I really need a new iphone now? What are the labor conditions at FoxConn in China where they are assembled? And if you don’t want to be bothered by all this ethical detail work then support political agendas and policies that would guarantee that your products are sufficiently ethical just like they now guarantee that products sold as food won’t make you sick.

Is there not an argument to say a win-for-all approach is the most sustainable? i.e. consumers donate to good causes, companies make a profit and charities in turn raise money for the people in need? Or are corporates the only real winners?

There are costs and benefits to all participants in the commodification of compassion. The consumers could donate to good causes without the corporate curation. (I am certain that I know best where to put my charity contributions—better than Walmart or Whole Foods). Charities are now forced to compete for corporate attention in a veritable beauty pageant where they must have the most photogenic beneficiaries, span local and global causes and produce impact reports at the professional level of a Harvard economist but graphics done by Pixar.   

Outside of perhaps raising awareness, is CSR a failure for good causes?

No, CSR, done properly could be good for good causes, good companies and good citizens.  As a superficial smokescreen for exploitation, it is useless for everyone except for the profiting corporate elites.

If so, why don’t charities know better or care more? Are they aware or naïve for the sake of achieving fundraising goals?

Charities are caught between Scylla and Charybdis—they are expected to take on roles of professional humanitarian actors, states and business support while at the same time they receive less core-funding than ever before. So I think they are engaging celebrities and other businesses to raise the funding they need to work for their cause.

Who is responsible for the lack of supply chain transparency when it comes to delivering of good intended campaigns? Governments?

I live in a social welfare state. Yes, I think that governments, democratically elected and accountable, are tasked with the responsibility of insuring the protection of its citizens whether they are producers, consumers or charity beneficiaries—or all of the above.

Is philanthropy bad?

Bad for what? It is good for lots of things, particularly for philanthropists. It is bad for promoting collective action in response to global and local problems. White saviour narratives do not correspond with a reality of systematic oppression of people on the basis of intersections between race, class and gender. 

Dr. Lisa Ann Richey is a Professor in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School. You can read more about her research into Commodifying Compassion here

Click here to get to the original interview published by AidEx.