Ti(red) of the consumer cause

Rubber bracelets, an iPod and a T-shirt—is this an ensemble that can save the world? Somehow the current trend of shopping for “The Cause” comes across as counter-intuitive to say the least. As if companies tagging products with specific colours to symbolise causes and cures could elevate the great North American trend to meaningful levels. Buying a red iPod translates into $10 going towards The Global Fund to Fight Aids. Cool. I can buy Kleenex to support breast cancer. Right on.

At first glance this seems not so bad. If you’re in the market for these products, why not ensure that a small fraction of your spending goes somewhere? But what does it mean when companies begin capitalizing on international crises like the AIDS pandemic, poverty and global warming? Suddenly they become brands. Activism becomes a consumable.

When the PRODUCT (RED) campaign was launched last year, Apple, The Gap, Hallmark, American Express and others collaborated with musical celebrity Bono to make these products available. Admittedly, these major players, in combination, can probably rake in a hell of a lot for the fund due to their rabid popularity. Placing the power of donation in the consumer’s hands probably makes us feel a little, but more, in control, and gives us the illusion we’re agents in the face of one fucked up world. However, the onus is on the consumer as opposed to these companies who have already chosen where to direct the funds. Couldn’t Apple donate a percentage of their profits to the fund, regardless of buyers?

I do think it’s a problem when we let institutions with a clearly vested interest in making money tell us how to act and dictate what to care about. The Gap wouldn’t be advocating the cause if they weren’t making profit—which they are. If the company were as ethical as its celebrity-ridden, awareness-raising advertisements would have us believe, maybe they’d look at who assembles their clothing and begin treating their workers with dignity. Wait, that’s not as profitable or sexy as Gisele in a tank top. Lately there are loads of T-shirts and bags sporting “Go-Green” pro-environmentalism slogans. But is this really enough? I think we have to face the facts that in terms of the environment, any consumption we do needs to be greatly reduced and turned local. It’s part of consumer culture to feel as though purchasing is an action that accomplishes something. Awareness and activism go beyond sporting a bright colour.

We have to consider if mainstream trend-dictators catching on to global concerns is really progress or if we’re just pacifying our guilty middle-class consumer consciences by buying and buying into capitalist whims. Do we pick up our American Express Red or picket-signs and pens and start talking back? These products reduce complicated problems to abstractions and colours. We need to see beyond the red or green or pink and start some serious dialogue.

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