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Are We Ready?

I first became aware of the (Product) Red initiative when I saw a long commercial about it (narrated by Bono) on VH1. As you’re are most likely aware of, products with the (Red) brand launched in the UK early this year, and the U. S. effort began in earnest on October 13 when Oprah hosted the official brand launch on her show.

Here’s how it works: Companies such as Apple, American Express, Converse, Motorola and others brand certain products with the (Red) logo (though the products themselves may or may not be red in color). When consumers purchase (Red) products, part of the profits go to The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The (Red) iPod Nano, for example, which is actually red as well as (Red) costs the same as comparable iPods, but $10 goes to AIDS relief with every purchase.

The (Red) manifesto stresses that (Red) isn’t a charity but rather a business model, that once consumers understand the choice, they will choose (Red) products and increase their market share enough to offset the contribution. The relative success of products labeled “green,” “organic” and “free-range” may indicate that (Red) will succeed.

I think (Red) is a great idea, and I hope it works. What concerns me is that it taps our questionable impulse of materialism and suggests that we can use it for good (kind of like the 2001 idea that we had to shop, or the terrorists had won). Sure, if I’m going to buy a Nano anyway, I might as well get the (Red) one. But what if instead I decided to forgo the purchase altogether and give $200 cash to AIDS relief?

The truth is, many people just aren’t going to do that. And this is the problem. The (Red) option gives people an alternative that keeps us from feeling guilty about it.

Socially-responsible economics are complicated. For example, a (Red) T-shirt from GAP costs $28, and GAP says they donate half the profits to charity. My initial reaction is, “How materialistic do you have to be to buy a $28 T-shirt? And how much better can it be than a $7 T-shirt from Wal-Mart?” But look closer, and you’ll see that GAP also claims to be committed to improving conditions and pay in garment factories in China and to providing reasonable benefits to GAP employees. Maybe that $7 shirt is subsidized by unfair wages overseas. Certainly it is subsidized by low-wages in the U. S. Maybe it really does cost closer to $28 to get it made fairly.

Which brings me back to wishing this whole project well. It’s smart business to get as many revenue streams as possible flowing to the places where poverty kills people.

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For Christians, however, shopping responsibly can be only the beginning. The economic ethic Jesus gives us goes way beyond smart business models. Indeed, if we do half of the things He said—sell our possessions and give to the poor, give to all who ask of us—people will think we are crazy. And maybe we would be crazy, except for that treasure in heaven we know is ours and that ultimate pearl of great price, the love from God that we live in every day.

The last line of the (Red) Manifesto says: “All you have to do is upgrade your choice.”

That isn’t quite all, but it’s a good place to start.

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