Afterthought: The Scourge of Cause Marketing

Corporate social responsibility efforts deserve more public scrutiny

(Jessica Limoanco)

Everybody likes to buy things. Everybody likes to feel moral validation. Why not do both at the same time?

Lucky for us consumers, there’s cause marketing, the practice of combining corporate promotion with the advancement of social causes. As it has become more commonplace for people to give their money to companies who commit to ethical practices that they agree with, corporations have increasingly turned to cause-related marketing to maintain their brand and goodwill with the public.

However, unless we as consumers take it upon ourselves to look into a company’s cause marketing efforts within the context of their general business practices, it can be tough to discern whether their dedication to curing cancer or solving world hunger comes from a genuine desire to improve people’s lives or cynical self-interest in maintaining a positive public image.

For example, Walmart donates to numerous food bank programs through the Walmart Foundation while simultaneously paying employees wages below the U.S. federal poverty line, oftentimes forcing them to rely on food stamp programs across the country.

The President’s Choice Children’s Charity contributes money to food programs for children in school, even though its parent company Loblaws was caught participating in an illegal price-fixing scheme that increased the cost of bread for over a decade.

The Indigo Love of Reading Foundation’s Literacy Fund grant, which the company proudly describes as a $1.5 million investment in high-needs elementary school libraries, was distributed across 30 schools in Canada. One of those institutions was Surrey’s Bridgeview Elementary school, which was granted $30,000.

Now, the basic description of this grant sounds like an impressive philanthropic effort in the hopes of improving child literacy.

The catch is that Indigo pays each school 10 per cent of the grant over three years, and the other 90 per cent comes in the form of a corporate account which schools can use to purchase books from Indigo, Chapters, and Coles at a 30 per cent discount. That’s a discount that, by the way, did not exist prior to a 2015 CBC investigation that criticized the Foundation for a lack of funding transparency.

We should question the motivation behind these initiatives and hold companies to account rather than freely giving them the public license they’re trying to buy through cause marketing. Instead of retweeting platitudes about de-stigmatizing the conversation around mental health, people should use Bell Let’s Talk Day as a time for self-reflection. When’s the last time you had a conversation about mental health without being prompted by a hashtag sponsored by a multi-billion dollar corporation?

Are you really putting effort into trying to change society for the better? Or are you more interested in the feeling of self-gratification that comes from donating five cents to a cause through a campaign of commodified virtue signalling?

It’s important to scrutinize these kinds of things instead of letting ourselves be convinced that we’re being ethical people when we donate a dollar at a grocery store checkout. If you want to donate to BC Children’s’ Hospital, it’s easy enough to do that through their website. You gain eligibility for a charitable donation tax credit. And best of all, you don’t have to subsidize a corporate public relations strategy.

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