Ok I'm listening to U2 on my ipod nano (TM) while strolling down the street in my Converse Hi-Tops(TM) and Gap(TM) t-shirt, texting my mates on my Motorola(TM) phone. I've just paid for dinner by Amex and my Armani watch would tell me it's midnight in Johannesburg if I could see it from beneath my Bono-alike Armani shades. I should be feeling good, but I don't. I don't feel red at all, in fact I feel distinctly blue.
My Google search engine tells me today is World Aids Day and that my conspicuous consumption of these commodities is making a difference to the lives of HIV/Aids sufferers in Africa. So does Bono and his mate Bobby Shriver who founded the Product Red campaign.
But in all the warm fuzziness surrounding the message of corporate compassion that Bono and Bobby are promoting I feel definitely uneasy, not to say queasy. If you actually look at the partners in this scheme it's clear that Bono and Bobby aren't too fussy about the company they keep.
Let's just go through them alphabetically:
Annual revenue about $24 billion. On the board of Amex we find such notables as Daniel Akerson MD of the Carlyle group one the largest private equity firms in Washington. Carlyle has had strong links with the Bush family and previous investors included the Bin Ladens. They were also involved in significant defense contracts.
Sitting along side Don we find Richard McGinn former CEO of Lucent Technologies. Lucent was in its day a darling of Wall Street until it was discovered that it had used dubious accounting and sales practices to generate some of its sales figures. In 2002 the company instituted cuts to the health care and retirement benefits its 125,000 retirees.
Next to Dicky sits Frank Popoff. Frank is the chairman of Chemical Financial Corporation, a bank holding company, but before that he was Chairman and CEO of the Dow Chemical Company. Dow manufactured napalm and Agent Orange for use in Vietnam. More recently it has stonewalled attempts to force it to pay for the environmental clean-up at the site of the Bhopal chemical disaster which it took over from Union Carbide when the later fled India following the disaster(www.studentsforbhopal.org).
In September this year Dow launched a major campaign designed, in the words of GolinHarris their PR company, "to leverage and deflect the influence of activists on issues ranging from the environment to animal welfare." Nice folks, but a bit sneaky, what?
Incidentally, on its release, the Red Amex card wasn't made available in the USA. I wonder if the colour has something to do with that?
Annual revenue about $2.1 billion. Everybody loves Apple, except Greenpeace it would seem. Since 2004 they have been running a campaign to persuade Apple to be a bit more eco-conscious in its manufacturing and recycling procedures. In its campaign Greenpeace identifies cadmium, beryllium, lead, brominated flame retardants, hexavalent chromium, and mercury amongst the toxic substances in your Apple product.
According to their website (www.greenpeace.org/apple/about.html)
Right now, poison Apples full of chemicals (like toxic flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride) are being sold worldwide. When they're tossed, they usually end up at the fingertips of children in China, India and other developing-world countries. They dismantle them for parts, and are exposed to a dangerous toxic cocktail that threatens their health and the environment.
With an annual revenue of $1692 million last year, the designer to dictators, coke barons and Hollywood movie moguls, our Georgio is also a convicted tax fraudster. In a 1996 plea bargain arrangement he was fined $64,000 and received a suspended sentence for attempting to bribe tax inspectors.
Now owned by Nike (need I say more) after its 2001 bankruptcy Converse shifted its manufacturing outside the United States to China, Indonesia and Vietnam (No sweatshop labour there, I would think). In addition to the famous Hi-Tops, the company also manufactures a range of 'tactical' footwear and it you can bet it ain't basket-ball players and fey singer-songwriters who form the market for those booties.
Annual Revenue around $16 billion. Having had a long history of, shall we say, unfortunate sourcing of its products, GAP has recently begun greening its image and taking a lead in the growing area of corporate social responsibility. So its involvement with a cause like Product Red is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is still the subject of campaigns resultng from the use of union bashing subcontractors like Paxar in Turkey and Western Factory in Jordan. According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the Gap's clothing products are manufactured with genetically engineered and pesticide laden cotton. Additionally, the company is not thoroughly implementing a code of conduct for its suppliers to ensure that no sweatshop labor is employed.
In 2002 BusinessWeek named Gap as having one of the worst corporate boards. The company was cited for inside deals including contracts with the chairman's brother to build and remodel stores and a consulting arrangement with the chairman's wife. The magazine also pointed out the interlocking directorship with the Gap's CEO sitting on Apple's board, while Apple's CEO sits on Gap's. (Responsible Shopper).
And last, but not least, Motorola
Annual revenue about $41.2 billion. Outside of the world of corporate capital, Motorola's CEO Edward J Zander is probably best known for his prescient comment of 2005 "Screw the nano. What the hell does the nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs?"
The company, which describes itself as a global corporate citizen (what be that?) presumably took its equal opportunities, affirmative action stance seriously while slashing its workforce from 160,000 to about 55,000 since 2001.
It has also become a significant player in the US Defence market of late. In 2003 it received a contract for the purchase, delivery and distribution of 3,000 portable and vehicular-mounted mobile radios, base stations, repeaters and towers, spare parts and installation to support the Baghdad Police Force.
To be fair to Motorola, of the bunch Bono and Bobby have gathered around them they appear to have the most proactive and longstanding commitment to corporate responsibility. Moreover, it does not appear to have emerged as a result of scandals surrounding sweatshops and child labour, so fair play to Moto.
The point about all this is that, as any Marxist knows, you can't separate consumption from production. Encouraging people to engage in conspicuous consumption won't change the social relationships that are the root cause of the under-development that leads to diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB shortening lives across the world. Holidaying in other people's misery is one thing but encouraging us to buy products which indirectly contribute to that misery is nothing more than an act of bad faith and self-mystification.
Helping a handful of corporations to present themselves as caring and compassionate instead of the rapacious barbarians they collectively are and giving affluent kids in the west the sense that shopping can make the world a better place, doesn't just miss the point, it just confuses the issue further. It won't stop the exploitation and it won't fundamentally change the nature of capitalism. It just becomes another tool in their armoury and they know it. As the PR company GolinHarris noted recently:
But it isn’t big brother that is watching. It’s the people. Every activist group, no matter how small, has the weapons in hand to attack a major corporation and sometimes bring it to its knees. Insight and experience dealing with NGOs will be a valuable asset in the protection of corporate reputation.
Thanks for giving them a helping hand, Paul.