On Mr. Wallet Mouth’s website, which is dedicated to field recording and phonography, he notes that he donates the proceeds of some of his CDs to charity. Because I’m married to him, I know that he does in fact make these donations (to a variety of do-gooder groups, including Doctors Without Borders and Heifer International).
But say the catalog you’re using to do some Christmas shopping states that when you purchase its wares, you’ll also be making a charitable donation. How do you know the company is going to follow through on that promise? Same thing when you’re at the grocery store and the cashier asks if you’d like to tack on another dollar or two to go to a good cause—how do you know that’s actually going to happen?
According to a story in today’s New York Times, you don’t. Embedded giving, as this merging of buying and donating is termed, is completely unregulated (despite the existence of charity regulators) and therefore susceptible to all the flaws and scams that can result from an absence of accountability. For example, the World Wildlife Fund didn’t even know it was the supposed recipient of donations from products listed in Barneys New York’s “Have a Green Holiday” catalog until it was contacted by the New York Times reporter.
So are all embedded-giving programs merely vehicles for virtue-washing, so to speak?
Not necessarily. My iPod Nano bears the the logo of (Product)RED, which generates donations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The article points out that this program is unusual in the embedded-giving world, because “a detailed contract exists between the seven companies that have signed contracts to use the (Product)RED brand” and because buyers can track how much money is being raised on the organization’s website.
But setting aside for a moment the issue of accountability, as well as the concern (also raised in the story) that fusing shopping and giving could make people less likely to give large donations at the end of the year, I see another problem: Embedded giving takes the focus away from the item being purchased and its “shadow” or backstory (the social and environmental factors behind its production—the stuff the label doesn’t tell you).
For example, Apple, the maker of my iPod, has a checkered history regarding e-waste and toxics. (Only recently has it been getting its act together.) And while I can’t find fault with the fact that that $10 of its $199 price tag is helping to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, I also can’t help but believe that the RED donation serves as a distraction from what we consumers should really be thinking about before we buy: whether the product exploited people or the earth, and whether the maker of that product deserves our money.