HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Gift-Giving as Philanthropy

'Tis the season of stuff. Lots of stuff. The catalogues crowd my mailbox. The dreary musing has started. Will Aunt Milly get a sweater? What about a new phone for the teenager with logorrhea? Who gets the fruit basket? Although our relatives live minutes from gourmet markets, we still give food. As well as scarves. Shirts. Dishes. Doodads. Stuff piled upon stuff.

Everybody over the age of six recognizes that Santa has morphed into the Grand Merchandiser, and that much of the stuff is a wasteful exercise in spending. Most Americans are sufficiently fed, clothed and equipped. Some of us are overly fed, clothed and equipped. We don't need more stuff.

Yet millions of people throughout the globe live at subsistence. Consider Africa, the continent where mothers wonder whether their newborns will live past age one, where young adults die from AIDS, where diseases long conquered in the West -- like tuberculosis -- rage. Africans need food and shelter, vaccines and medicine.

How useful to divert some of that spending into philanthropy!

The option, of course, exists for "in honor of" contributions. The gift-giver sends a contribution to a nonprofit organization in honor of Aunt Milly or the chatty teenager. The gift-as-contribution is easier than traipsing through the malls. Its cost is tax-deductible.

But an envelope under the tree looks paltry. Recipients -- including those of us who have gotten the slim envelope reminders of our relatives' generosity -- are generally not thrilled. Aunt Milly and the loquacious child -- not to mention all the other giftees on "the list" -- want a box they can open, filled with a thing they can return, regift or stash. Rhetoric aside, most of us want stuff. Maybe the gaily wrapped package reminds us that somebody cared enough to spend a few minutes, a few dollars, on us.

So "RED" products are a welcome sight in the cavalcade of holiday merchandise. A handful of corporations has banded together to market these quasi-philanthropic products. If you buy a Gap RED t-shirt, a pair of RED Converse sneakers, a Motorola RED cell phone, Giorgio Armani RED sunglasses or an American Express RED credit card, these companies will send a percentage of the profits from those products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The African with AIDS who doesn't know what a Gap t-shirt is, much less covet one, will get medications when a well-dressed American buys a Gap RED t-shirt. Bono and Bobby Shriver spearheaded this campaign.

Stores in Britain started selling RED products in February. To date, the retailers have sent $10 million to Africa. The retailers make a profit; part of that profit goes to the Global Fund. For instance, Motorola will donate $44.50 for each RED phone sold; Converse will donate 15% of the revenue from its RED shoes sold on-line; American Express will donate 1% of charges on its RED card.

The success of the RED Campaign rests with two parties. First, companies must sign up. The organizers see "RED" as a continual product line: The campaign was not designed as a one-time holiday spurt. The RED campaign has just started in the United States. Organizers hope that as word spreads here, more retailers will want in. Optimistic supporters envision RED computers, RED televisions, RED DVD players.

Second, consumers must buy the products. In the jargon of retailing, these RED products join a small list of other "ethical-issue affinity products." English consumers have a tradition of "ethical consumption," where spenders try to dovetail beneficence with materialism. Skeptics wonder whether there is much of a market for "ethical consumption" in the United States.

The gifts themselves are still redundant. Nobody on my list needs another scarf, phone or t-shirt.

Yet somebody will benefit. After all, 'tis the season not just of holly and fruitcake and boxes stuffed with stuff. 'Tis also the season of kindness.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2006

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