Seeing Red ¦ The Commodification of Poverty

P1_160506b_119937b There’s been a lot of media attention given to Bono’s initiative ‘Brand Red’ recently. The Independent is edited by him today (nice cover by Damien Hirst). And yesterday saw the launch of a Motorola phone which, when bought, gives £10 to development charities, and, when used, gives 5% of call charges too.

I have to say I’m sceptical. I like Bono. I think his heart is right in the right place. But I wonder if those eyes have seen through expensive shades for too long, if he’s just spent too much time among the glitterati, and whether this Red idea is simply the commodification of poverty.

As you know, I’m a fan of the concept of ‘gift’, and this idea seems to me to be anti-gift. We buy the phone because we are buying into a brand. Not because we really care. If the only way we can get people to help those in dire need is to have to offer them something cool in return for their pennies, then I think there’s something very wrong.

The Independent today carries an interview by Stellar McCartney with Giorgio Armani. In it he states:

“The best way to make a contribution in fashion is to promote the idea that a fundamental interest in preserving the environment is itself fashionable.”

I disagree. If environmentalism, or aid, is simply a fashion statement, it will go out of fashion like bell bottoms and floral shirts. And this is the problem. Brand Red is a brand. And the companies involved are involved to make money, not to give it away. The want to align themselves to something that is ‘cool’. If Armani was serious, he’d fundamentally change his business practice. He’d rather window dress.

I’m not sure starving children or aids orphans want to be seen as cool. They don’t want people buying more clothes and mobiles so a cut of the profits can go to them. They want you to not buy the damn thing, be happy with what you have and give them the lot.

“If a man has two shirts, he should buy another one, Brand Red, and give the profits to the poor.” No. Give the poor the other damn shirt.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,


14 responses to “Seeing Red ¦ The Commodification of Poverty”

  1. i’ve replied to your comment in the comment here –

  2. Apologies if I’m taking you too literally here, but
    “Give the poor the other damn shirt.”
    Surely it can’t just be about us giving to the poor the excess stuff we don’t really need. Yes you might have a point about buying into the brand, and doing stuff simply because it’s fashionable. And perhaps I need to better understand what you mean by ‘gift’. Perhaps you could elaborate (or direct me to where you have already done so) about how ‘gift’ relates to giving and aid etc.
    Perhaps we should never have bought the second shirt in the first place.
    I’m with you, in that I don’t especially like the potential commodification of poverty etc etc, but isn’t it better than doing nothing at all? Isn’t it at least a step in the right direction? Or is that too flimsy a response on my part? It may be.


    I said it before and I’ll say it again.
    The solution: immigration/emmigration.
    Play swapsies with the poor. Send our jive-arses over to *Ethnopia* to live out our lives and get their arses over to the UKA.
    Done and done.
    Who’s poor and needy now, MoFo? You and I that’s who… when it’s us living it low let’s see how many mobiles we want sold in our name.
    Then let’s not do it in theirs.
    BTW WTF? Mobiles… those are like one of the top arms-factory-made, cheap-labour-made, consumable electronic products there is… give th poor the phones, see who responds to their 999 call?
    It’s good to talk.
    Ah, K, now you got me talkin’ shit.

  4. i see what you’re saying, but i think the whole phone and fashion thing is meeting people where they are. yes, i ageree with you, it can’t just be for fashion or it will “go out”, but what do you do until people really get on the boat and start doing something? people will buy things regardless. and whether they’re concerned about the poor or not, they’re going to buy a phone (or a something else), that’s just taking an acceptance of realism and doing something at least a litte good with it. no way is it enough, but something’s better than nothing.

  5. Someone or other linked to producing this phone (on last nights Channel 4 News) commented that the idea came out of last years trend for charity braclets. The guy seemed to be saying that people want to buy products that make some kind of public statement about their charitable giving, so in a way maybe having a phone that says ‘I support AIDS charities’ is a logical progression. Maybe everybody wins, the consumer gets to make a purchase which is easy on his/her conscience, the phone producer gets some great advertising and sells more phones and the HIV/AIDS victim gets access to drugs or treatment they couldn’t otherwise have afforded. Supporting AIDS charities isn’t so sexy, but buying a new mobile is, so why not make the first one a bit sexier by associating it with the latter and kill two birds with one stone. But then again didn’t Jesus say something about not letting your left hand know what the right was doing when it comes to giving? Seems like that might be a bit tricky if there’s a shiny red phone in your right hand.

  6. How about the phone playing you clips of starving kids or AIDS orpans? Oh no, that would be very un-sexy. When the truth is brought too close, things get very uncomfortable. We we buy them to close them off a bit. Distance ourselves from them. This is the idea of the market: you buy, and balance the scales, so you don’t owe and don’t have any relational potential. I mean, let’s send a few phone-bucks to starving kids but GOD, I don’t want one, like, actually in my house!

  7. Greg Russinger

    Thanks Kester with your honest throw down..


    How about an enforced increase in our taxes specifically for such *justice-not-charities*???

  9. Thanks Kester for sharing…I really appreciate hearing your voice in this conversation.

  10. If you were one of those development charities that got some of that Motorola money, you might feel differently. And if you were one of those starving kids who got some food, I don’t think you would care where it came from or have the time to probe people’s motivations.
    I was at a gala the other night for a non-profit that tries to get homeless teenagers off the streets. They raffled off a Bentley and honored an entertainment executive and a housing developer. Does anyone need a Bentley? No. Did those two people have much to do with homeless teenagers? No, but they are rich and brought rich friends to the event, so the organization got more money – which they need to keep doing what their doing. My friend who works there needs a paycheck. She used to be one of those homeless teenagers, and I didn’t hear her complaining. What’s the difference between that and something like Brand Red?
    People give money for all kinds of reasons -guilt, compassion, and to improve their public image. Yes, we need to reduce our consumption, and it would be great if people gave money because they really cared, but there is too much injustice in the world to criticize someone like Bono, who has done so much to bring the AIDS crisis in Africa and debt relief into the public eye.
    Damnflanderz – BTW, from recent conversations with a couple people who have been doing development work in Africa, mobile phones have been a crucial part of small business development there and empowering Africans to be able to buy their own damn shirts, instead of having to depend on charity. Mobile phones have been important in India’s economic development, too. So, yeah, maybe we should give the poor the phones, so they have the technology not to be so poor anymore.

  11. Although the text is ambiguous, there is a long tradition that sees the problem with Cain’s offering as rooted in the fact he ‘gave from excess.’ Abel, by contrast, gave first-fruits – gave the best, the first of what he had. A sacrifice. Cain gave some left-overs. Abel gave first, and made do with what was left. Cain gave once he’d had what he needed.
    Perhaps this is part of my problem with this scheme. Don’t get me wrong – the money’s great. But the means are poor. To give ‘from excess’ appears to be a lesser gift than giving out of sacrifice. We shouldn’t give out of what we have left over, but give first, then make do with what’s left.
    The first puts ourselves as most important. The second sees the other as more important. Which seems to me to be at the heart of a lot of Christ’s teaching.


    But so many give from their own debt, being unable to afford their own lifestyles anyway. So what are the repercussions of a culture that puts the-corporation-that-gives-them-credit first (in an ignorant attempt at putting themselves first)?
    Just out of interest… do the *Ethnopians* use Contract or PAYG mobiles?

  13. I take your point well. The narrow way is paved with giving.
    Brand Red is working the broad way. AND I think Brand Red is shrewd. Paul Newman made a huge business from a bottle of vinegar and funds a huge amount of projects.
    Bono gets press and he’s using his muscle. We, for our own part, should continue to exercise ours.

  14. martin hill

    I think such scepticism in the face of a global conscience in the me, me, me market place questionable. I can’t help but think that your well made point is right but then to do nothing, another option for the glitterati, is more wrong. While AIDs in Africa becoming chic, and this years fashion phase, is a sickening idea. I can’t help thinking that the heart to stand up and be counted is to be welcomed (I think you say so in a reserved way in your blog). We have the basic human responsibility to deplore the imbalances of provision of basic medical care and avoidable complications of poverty. To speak in the face of injustice is always preferable than to remain silent. Pax Kester.