Page 2 – Mara Einstein – Compassion, Inc.
Next, Einstein lays out the basic tension between two impulses in corporations: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which she defines as “being a good corporate citizen, with an emphasis on highlighting corporate ethics” and a tendency she traces back to the Milton Friedman school of economics, “which held that a corporation’s only responsibility was to make money for its shareholders.” I appreciated that Einstein was balanced in her analysis; she doesn’t claim that all corporations are necessarily evil and self-serving and solely concerned with the bottom line. This is more of a spectrum, with some companies barely doing the minimum of ethics as required by law (and sometimes not even that), and others becoming “social innovators” and taking things beyond corporate responsibility and completely interweaving social justice within their business model. Einstein gives a plethora of examples in this chapter, and throughout the rest of the book, of companies who are doing great things, companies who have a mix of good policies but not always the best integrity within their own practices (McDonald’s, Walmart), and companies who really aren’t serving the social good, and sometimes are even undermining it.
In this latter category, Einstein has some harsh critiques for what she names “hypercharities” defined as “organization[s] that [are] structured and promoted to appeal to large corporations looking to tie in with a charity partner for maximum marketing exposure.” (71). The most egregious examples of these are the (RED) campaign, sponsored by places like Starbucks, Apple, Gap, etc. and the Susan G. Komen foundation. Einstein is not denying that these organizations do some good work, she is just concerned that their “underlying raison d’être is marketing. Not only marketing, but marketing made easy” (72). These products feed into our consumerism more than our goodwill, have obscured how much is being donated with the purchase of each individual item, and are so prevalent that they contribute to “charity fatigue.” This results in other important causes being marginalized because they don’t bring the brand recognition and product promotion that these bigger-name foundations do, and really, there are only so many causes and charities that one person can support and be active in. Not to mention, this type of charity doesn’t really ask us to become any more involved than indirectly buying a product, and perhaps getting some publicity for the cause. It would be better for a person to donate directly to an organization and find out ways to get involved in advocating and volunteering for a cause, but these things aren’t quick and easy fixes, nor should they be.
What is the solution then? What about companies that are making a difference, what do they look like? Also, if we should be concerned about weaving together charity with consumerism, what are more productive avenues for engaging with causes that we care about? Einstein gives us a starting point in answering these questions as well; one of the many strengths of this book is that it doesn’t just outline the problem, leveling criticisms without offering any solutions. The first thing one should look for in a company that supports a charity or cause was mentioned briefly before: integrity. For example, a company like McDonald’s supporting the American Heart Association would be hypocritical at best—sure, money may still be going to the AHA, but the cause itself is undermined by McDonalds’ products. The best companies have their commitment to causes deeply embedded in the structure of the company itself—everything from the products it sells, to how it uses the profits. Companies like Newman’s Own (not to be confused with Newman’s Own Organic) and a carpet company called Interface are listed as positive examples here. The former donates all of its after-tax profits to charity while still providing a quality product; the latter has changed its business practices to be more sustainable—promoting recycling of old products and environmentally responsible production. What would it look like if a company like Apple did this? Instead of selling (RED) iPods, Apple could work to make sure its factories are operating efficiently and with care and concern for worker’s rights. They could find ways to reuse old products—especially since so many people buy the latest and greatest Apple product as soon as it comes out, regardless of if there are substantial improvements on the previous model. That is the kind of relationship that should exist between company and causes—one that is fully integrated with the business model itself, and seeks to maximize awareness of and support for the cause (whether it be environmentalism, education, cancer research, etc.) instead of company profits and product promotion. The bottom line needs to be about bettering communities and ultimately, the world, instead of making endlessly more profits; this does not seem to be an unreasonable expectation of our corporations, but it would require a substantial shift in vision.
To this end, we need to do our part and be conscious about what we buy and not fall for gimmicks. We need to research companies and charities and see how much is actually being donated and where that money is going—to overhead costs or to help people and the planet? We need to remember that long-term involvement is the key, and buying a product should not be the only response we take. We need to volunteer for organizations we care about and become direct sponsors of charities, even if it’s only a $5/month contribution—which is probably far less than we would spend on buying some of these special products, and more of it would go to the charity itself! Furthermore, we need to tell corporations what kind of engagement we want to see from them and that we will no longer be duped by shallow marketing campaigns, but will hold them accountable and expect that they will contribute back to society in meaningful ways. These things are possible, and Mara Einstein’s Compassion, Inc. is a great tool to begin the conversation and foster meaningful contributions from the corporations themselves as well as individual citizens.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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