Product (RED), and Brand Aid more generally, facilitate at least three shifts in the emerging realm of ‘causumerism’ (shopping for a better world): from ‘conscious consumption’ (mainly based on product-related information) to ‘compassionate consumption’ (mainly based on the management of consumer affect); from attention to the product and its production process toward the medical treatment of the ‘people with the problem’ (AIDS patients in Africa); and from addressing the causes of problems to solving their manifestations.
‘Causumerism’ (or shopping for a better world, effecting change through the marketplace) as a term seems to have been first coined by Ben Davis, co-founder of http://www.buylesscrap.org/, a website critical of the RED campaign which promotes direct donations to The Global Fund in place of purchasing RED products. But other terms have been used, such as political or ethical consumerism, essentially to denote the same phenomenon — individual consumers ‘lending’ their purchasing power to social movements to enable them to effectively voice their concerns and leverage positive or negative sanctions.
The consumption of signs and experiences can indeed be the vehicle for the mobilization of ‘meaning’, political action and belonging to a ‘community’. Citizen-consumers are increasingly seen as exercising their rights to demand social and environmental change via individual acts of ‘conscious consumption’ – backed up by systems of certification, labeling, and codes of conduct. But while consumer agency may take the form of collective action through campaigns and consumer organizations’ pressure, in RED the focus is on the individual act of consumption. Depictions of Product RED consumers as fashion-conscious yet actively engaged, reflexive and therefore inspi(RED) are part and parcel of this trend.
In RED, ‘causumerism’ is mobilized by celebrities through affect and rests on the engagement of discourses of transparency, consumer participation, and the creation of an image of social movement-cum-brand community. But there is no transparency on the social and environmental relations that underpin the production and trade of RED products. In RED, transparency is restricted to the constructed ‘impact’ of purchase–the number of doses that will be provided to AIDS patients, and the number of people ‘saved’.
From conscious to compassionate consumption
RED is far from the only initiative trying to canvass ‘causumerism’. ‘Ethical trade’ initiatives and ‘sustainability’ labels and certifications are available for a large range of products purchased by Western consumers (e.g. organics, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance-certified, UTZ-certified). They allow consumers to choose products that are putatively ‘better’ for the environment, trade relations, producers or workers. Via a label or logo placed on the product, consumers can identify which products have such characteristics, and thus promote sustainability or ethical trade via a market-based (rather than regulation-based) mechanism.
The performance of different initiatives in terms of delivering to their beneficiaries is quite varied. It is indeed possible to ‘do good’ via causumerism, but the spread and depth of ‘good’ varies, as well as the power relations between giver and taker. With the right dynamics, the efforts needed to meet sustainability standards required by ethical trade initiatives can create a virtuous circle of empowerment and organizational strengthening among producers. But in other cases, expected benefits do not materialize, some beneficiaries are included and others are excluded, and the costs and benefits of inclusion vary.
With RED, the link with producers (or workers) has been severed completely. The problem with the product (e.g. low prices paid to producers) is substituted with the problem with the people who benefit from RED profits (women and children with AIDS). In RED, third-party certification against a set of (more or less) negotiated standards is substituted by celebrity validation.
All is served in simple terms on the plate of consumers, who do not have to sacrifice anything to achieve the good of others. While some labeling initiatives do leave space for NGOs and consumer organizations to engage with standard setting and revision via civil society groups, in Product RED participation is limited to shopping (and to some extent blogging or concert-going).
Sustainability certifications and labels have had a mixed record in delivering to their putative beneficiaries. But at the very least, the beneficiaries of better economic returns and/or positive social or environmental dynamics have an active role in the process – they produce, process, and/or trade such commodities. In RED, beneficiaries are passive recipients, not the workers of the factories that produce RED t-shirts and mobile phones. RED shifts focus from the product it is selling to the people with the problem it is solving.
With RED, consumers are enrolled by celebrities to save the lives of distant others (Africans with AIDS). They can become ‘causumers’ without extra effort. They are not asked to address the social and environmental relations behind the products on offer. They are not asked to pay a higher price for RED products over equivalent products of the same brand either. They are led away from ‘conscious consumption’ to ‘compassionate consumption’.
This vignette really captures the essence of compassionate consumption: ‘the coffee is pretty cold’ says the customer in the ‘Indulgence Cafe’ … ‘not as cold as small dead African children. That’ll be 59 kroner [$12] please’ says the volunteer worker. The sign on the counter translates roughly as: ‘buy all sorts of things here and support all sorts of things there’, and the smaller sign on the side asks: ‘do you sleep well at night?’