By SERENITY BOLT
This article was published by Zester Daily on May 12, 2014.
Liisa VonEnde, a dental hygienist from Vermont, pauses in the checkout line at Whole Foods Market and considers the last-minute temptations: local chocolate, exotic licorice, obscure brands of gum. Finally she tosses a 2 Degrees cherry almond energy bar into her cart. Why that one? This particular bar helped feed a hungry child. These days, “cause marketing” — an idea that for many began with Paul Newman’s salad dressing — has spread to everything from shoes to eyeglasses, with small specialty companies combining flashy graphics with philanthropy to sell their products.
California-based 2 Degrees Food provides one meal for every bar sold. In Morocco, meanwhile, women have organized into small cooperatives to sell argan oil, hoping the tie-in will boost sales for their vendors. Both cases sound like a win-win-win, satisfying the disadvantaged, a company’s bottom line, and consumer cravings. With so many food companies adopting the do-gooder model, however, consumers need to think about whether their well-meaning purchases are delivering as promised.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman defines cause marketing as a business campaign “promising donations from the sale of products or the use of services.” Recent research shows that consumers are indeed affected by a company’s corporate social responsibility. A 2013 study by the New York-based Reputation Institute found that 42% of the 47,000 participants were influenced by their perception of a company’s social mission. This trend is most apparent in the rapid growth of smaller businesses like 2 Degrees Food, along with such well-known brands as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, which make direct donations of shoes and/or eyeglasses as part of their business model.
Insight from 2 Degrees Food
Lauren Walters, cofounder and CEO of 2 Degrees Food, believes that simplicity is key. “One of the things that appeals to consumers is that it’s concrete, it’s clear: You buy a bar and this is what happens,” he says. Founded in 2009, 2 Degrees produces the promised meals in-country using local labor and food sourced from regional farmers whenever possible. So far, he says, Two Degrees has donated over 1 million meals in Colombia, Haiti, Malawi, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Somalia, and the United States.
The social business model has been criticized for promoting a situation in which people in developing countries rely on the whims of a first-world consumer: If the influx of free shoes, eyeglasses and meals stops one day, the people may be left without the wherewithal to produce and purchase these items for themselves. The model may also unwittingly discourage consumers from engaging in more thoughtful or sustained philanthropy. “If we buy a T-shirt and feel we are financially supporting a cause by buying the T-shirt, a lot of people will already think they’ve given, and may not be amenable to other requests,” says Ray Dart, professor of business administration at Trent University in Ottawa.
While Walters acknowledges that the cause marketing model has issues, he says he hopes more businesses embrace it. He envisions a “culture of choice” that empowers consumers to make a difference. “The problem is not that there are getting to be too many of these companies, but that there are too few,” he says. “Everyone should be doing this.”
The women who process argan oil in Morocco have experienced the downside firsthand. The seed of the argan tree is native to Arganeraie, a UNESCO biosphere in the southwest region of Morocco. The Amazigh women have been extracting the oil for centuries using a complicated hand-pressing process. Jamila Idbourrous is director of UCFA (Union des Coopératives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie), a large argan cooperative in Morocco’s Agadir region. She says the oil, which is used for cooking and cosmetics, is the area’s only financial resource. “Within the cooperatives, we care deeply about offering these women fair pay for their work,” she says. But even after her cooperative stopped supplying some companies with the oil last year, Idbourrous says, at least one continues to promote its connection to UCFA — and the social benefits for the women.
As companies feel increased pressure to factor social responsibility into their marketing and as consumers adjust their perception of what defines a “good” company, people will expect to see companies giving something back. For her part, VonEnde says that “the social stuff is an added bonus that makes me feel like I did more that day than just buy an energy bar or a pair of shoes.” CEO Walters thinks that feeling could spread. “If they can help someone just by buying a bar, maybe they’ll start to think of other ways to make a difference, too,” he says.
How to assess a corporation’s social responsibility
How can you evaluate a company’s commitment to social responsibility? Last October, the New York attorney general issued some best practices for cause marketing campaigns. These tips are based on those recommendations:
1. Expect your donation to be clear: Look for companies that use a fixed dollar amount — such as 50 cents for every purchase — rather than generic phrases like “a portion of proceeds” will go to charity.
2. Look for transparency: Be aware of any contractual limits on the giving campaigns or of charitable contributions that won’t be made in cash. See whether a fixed amount has been promised to the charity regardless of number of products sold.
3. Demand the details in social media, too: Watch that companies conducting cause marketing through social media clearly and prominently disclose key terms in their online marketing.
4. Find out how much was raised: At the conclusion of each campaign, you should be able to go to the company’s website and see the amount of charitable donations generated.
Main photo: Moroccan women like Fatna Boufoss first gathers nuts from the argan forest, then grinds them after they are roasted as her daughter Meriam looks on. Credit: Serenity Bolt