Is Cause Marketing Causing Problems?

Angela M. Eikenberry has an interesting piece (h/t Zoe Weil) at the Stanford Social Innovation Review questioning cause marketing — you know, pink flashlights supporting breast cancer or yogurt that ‘saves’ trees by directing a portion of the profits to rain forests. Eikenberry aceepts many of the benefits of this growing part of philanthropy, but also points out many pitfalls. Here is a snippet from her essay:

Perhaps a more disturbing feature of consumption philanthropy is that consumers need not be aware of the supposed beneficiary of their actions. The morality of philanthropy comes from acting for other people, according to scholars Warren Smith and Matthew Higgins.9 Acting for other people, in turn, requires figuring out what they really need.

Yet consumption philanthropy sidesteps both this requirement and, more generally, contact with people in need. For example, a person who uses a charity-licensed credit card to pay for an expensive meal, and thereby sends a percentage of his purchase to a cause that fights hunger, may no longer feel obligated to find out who is hungry or why they are hungry. Without this knowledge, he may feel less empathy for poor people, and therefore less compelled to change the conditions that caused their plight.

More broadly, in the absence of people’s active and effortful moral engagement, corporations and their profit-driven needs set the tone for acceptable ways of being philanthropic. As a result, people’s genuine benevolent sentiments are co-opted for profit, and their care is reduced to a market transaction.

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