The Shady Business of the Warm Glow

Hey all – I have been diligently reading articles for my thesis…did I say reading and thesis? I meant tweeting and the election, or eating and peanut butter cups, or lying and in the sun. But seriously: I am actually doing some work while on vacation in Florida, that is, whenever I’m near an outlet. I have been struggling lately to keep my devices charged. According to my guide book, not stressing over low battery levels is an important step when transitioning from a Toxic-Type-A personality to Chill-Type-B. While I was going through some of my computer folders, I found this essay I wrote about corporate social responsibility freshman year. This was before I went full on socialist, minimalist and environmentalist, before I had developed the proper language to describe the systems I was critiquing. But this morning, my friend dressed her daughter in pink because her school is doing something for Breast Cancer Awareness month. I talk about this campaign in my essay, so I figured it’d be a good time to repost it, especially since my new pieces are taking a while to nail down. Here’s freshman PJ writing on CSR and capitalism: 

The Hard Truth about the “Warm Glow” 

Endangered Species Chocolates, a company that sources their chocolate ethically and sustainably, gives 10% of their profits to environmental non-profit organizations, and includes information about endangered species on the label of every candy bar. They’ve been doing this for over a decade, since long before every company had a philanthropy clause. When you could buy a Yoplait Yogurt without helping find the cure for breast cancer or a box of Nature Valley Granola Bars without helping to conserve national parks. You know, the good old days.

To be clear, I hate breast cancer and love national parks as much as anyone and I jump at any opportunity to support these causes. For years, I bought into this scheme of corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s hard not to. I feel better eating a granola bar that promises to feed hungry children in Africa than one that only feeds its well-satiated shareholders. Ditto to wearing Tom’s Shoes, which sends a pair of shoes to an African child for every pair sold. Even my almond butter congratulates me for helping them contribute to the American Farmland Trust. The branding of these products gives us what researchers call a “warm glow.” Charitable behavior elicits pleasure, social connection, and trust. Sure. But is contributing to a corporate-driven philanthropic campaign truly charitable? We allow ourselves to feed on this artifice by supporting campaigns and causes that appeal to us emotionally. All the while, we believe (or allow ourselves to believe) that our purchasing power has more of a social impact than it actually does. Companies hide this truth well, but it’s a truth that that will leave your formerly warm heart merely tepid.

Let’s look first at the promising blue ribbon on Nature Valley boxes, “YOU can help preserve the parks,” it shouts, depicting a scenic mountain-scape. “YES, I can,” you think. But wait, not so fast. You have to go online first, read the rules and regulations, then enter your UPC code and hope that the maximum donation set by the company has not yet been reached. These rules are in place to protect the company and were created after a scandal in 1999 between Yoplait Yogurt and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In a 3-month campaign promising to send $0.50 per lid to the BCR Foundation, Yoplait did not advertise that the donation would be capped at $100,000. They found themselves in trouble when 9.4 million lids were sent in, leading consumers to the wrong conclusion that $4.7 million would be donated to this cause. As a “penalty,” and to avoid “legal consequences,” General Mills, parent company of Yoplait, donated an extra $63,000 to the BCR Foundation.

This was not a minor legal mix-up with the IRS over your tax-deductible donation of $50 to the local animal shelter; we are talking mountains of cash here which companies like General Mills push around like pennies. But does the problem lie in Yoplait and General Mill’s withholding of information? I think we should pay attention to why 9.4 million consumers were willing to lick the yogurts off these lids, place them in envelopes, lick the envelopes, stick on the stamps, and send them on their way, all the while ignorant of the campaign’s credentials. This is the kind of do-gooder activity that we see from people unable or unwilling to fully contribute to causes that they care about, from people who want a subtle tan but are afraid to burn in the sun.

We put on our blinders to corporate scandals and hypocritical behavior because it allows us to shop with greater ease. We accept the charitable messages we see on the outside of boxes (nearly every box these days, it seems) and welcome the good feeling that accompanies our purchase, often without further research of the company’s true values. If we take a further look at the Nature Valley website, we find three adjacent tabs: Preserve the Parks, Skiing, and Golfing. Intrigued, I clicked the golf tab, though I wish I hadn’t. A banner beside a silhouette of some golfers reads: “From pristine fairways to the unique terrain of each course, golf reveals nature at its best. Nature Valley supports golf because it offers us all an opportunity to play in nature.”  The pairing of national parks and golf is striking, since golf courses are a huge environmental hazard. They contaminate water sources with pesticides and fertilizers and drive out local species by excavating large plots of land. When we put the images of Joshua Tree National Park next to the Nature Valley Cup, it becomes clear that there is a balancing act going on here. We have become desensitized to give-and-take tactics like these because we enjoy the feeling of doing good, even if that something good is a cover-up to counteract other behavior.                                                                                                                                                                                                         For another example, let’s look at the Heart Truth, a campaign run by Coca-Cola to raise awareness for heart disease in women. The red dress logo is a recognizable part of Diet Coke cans. The logos remind drinkers about the campaign and numb them to the larger implication of their beverage choice by making a not-so-subtle connection between Coke and heart health. (Though, it might be the chemical combination of aspartame and caramel color that’s responsible for the numbing.) Coca-Cola holds its head high while wearing its Heart Truth label, despite a growing base of evidence linking sweetened beverages, even and especially diet ones, to heart disease. Their cheeky, albeit catchy, slogan, heart disease doesn’t care what you wear, capitalizes on the unseen values of the campaign. The Heart Truth fuels on a positive image, not science. But we as consumers are not so dissimilar from Coca-Cola’s marketing director; we care more about how our figure looks in that metaphorical red dress than we do about our tainted ways of achieving such a figure. Everyone from my grandmother to law school students to my sociology professor knows that something that sounds as perfect as a zero-calorie sweet beverage is too good to be true. But they drink it anyway, valuing the instantaneous rush of caffeine over the long-term health implications. The hard truth to accept is that The Heart Truth is a sham.

But isn’t it all? Let’s look back to the Endangered Species Chocolate. Their business platform tries to “do good.” In advertising their environmental initiatives, however, they attract a large base of customers looking for those buzzwords, sustainably and ethically sourced, thus boosting sales and profits. We cannot extinguish the bottom line that burns beneath these marketing tactics, even if they are made with the best intention. When we reach for an Endangered Species Chocolate bar, or a similar one that wears a Fair Trade, 1% for the Planet, or Equal Exchange stamp, we make false contributions to these causes. When we pick up a bag of Ethical Bean Coffee, a Fair Trade Kit-Kat (so far this only exists in the UK, but yep, that’s a thing), or a Diet Coke with its Heart Truth sticker, we act as the image-obsessed individuals we are, not as the humanitarians we want to be. We want to taste the sweetness of Coke without worrying about extra calories, and we pay no mind to the artificial sweeteners which help us achieve that satisfaction. We also want to save the world, really, we do. But we want to do it from the comfort of our local Stop & Shop, while shamelessly flipping through UsWeekly and thinking, Wow, Miley Cyrus is blowing up, and not in a good way. We want to make our splash from the supermarket line, not the front lines of a UNICEF project in Africa. If I can buy a candle that helps a girl from Ghana learn how to read, you bet I’m going to buy that one over a pine-breeze scented candle from Glade. Girls read, I give a mediocre gift to a co-worker, and everyone wins, right? Charitable donations are one thing, for they are made without an exchange of materials. The only thing we gain from making a donation is a good feeling. That’s it. We and our beloved corporations have taken charity to a new level, making it a mutual exchange of merchandise. We let our purchases define us, using them as devices to raise our status or raise others’ opinions of us. We make these purchases because we like the way that glow looks on our faces. We do it because of the warm, fuzzy feeling we get inside. But that might just be one too many ethical chocolate bars struggling to make it through our collective arteries.

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