It has bee some time since I posted one of these, because life (and YouTube) happened. In fact, and unfortunately, they are still happening. The only update I have is that we are working on it.
But there are a few topics that I really want to write about before the end of the month, hence today’s post. The term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can mean many things to many people. Some may see it as the business world’s attempt to give back. Others call it out for being a thinly veiled attempt to sell more product. Either description is both interesting, yet incomplete.
But in Pakistan, CSR also continues to be something that is Ramadan’s second favourite accessory, the first of course being the infamous ‘Ramadan Transmission’ television. Yet, while we have debated and dissected Ramadan television, CSR has emerged unscathed despite its long history.
I’m not suggesting that we reject anything that is related to CSR, however I do think that it is important to analyze where the rabbit hole goes. So, let’s have an informed discussion.
CSR for the new age
Investopedia defines Corporate Social Responsibility as “a corporation’s initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on environmental and social wellbeing.” However, with the advent of time and technology, the term has taken on new-age fuzziness. One explanation of CSR that I feel captures this quality is the Canadian Government’s, where CSR is “the voluntary activities undertaken by a company to operate in an economic, social and environmentally sustainable manner.”
The idea then is that anything that a corporation volunteers to do, but is not legally bound to do, to promote some iota of positivity can be deemed CSR. This may translate to many things; in Pakistan this often translates to something for Ramadan. This year we were treated to a corporate social clash of the giants.
Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola released their respective campaigns as the month began. Both accompanied by simple and powerful ad campaigns which had most of us reaching for the tissue boxes and vowing to help our fellow man, even if this meant (slightly) inconveniencing our wallets.
Coca-Cola seized the opportunity to put Abdul Sattar Edhi’s face on its campaign, pledging to double whatever amount Pakistanis donate to ensure that the seminal Edhi Foundation is able to achieve its humanitarian agenda.
The Pepsi campaign in contrast lacks the iconography of its competitor, but still churned out an impressive campaign. Aptly titled ‘Litre of Light’, it aims to spread environmentally friendly, solar powered, bottle lights to parts of Pakistan that don’t have access to electricity.
Okay, so let’s dissect them.
CSR has existed since the advent of capitalism itself. The likes of Henry Ford for example believed in ‘giving back’ to the community. But as with much else that for-profit organizations engage in, CSR also benefits the organization itself. Studies have linked a successful campaign with a spike in the all important brand image, and in the digital age brand image is basically what giants like Coca-Cola and Pepsi sell.
By 2017, big-name companies have become part of our global culture. They don’t have to tell us what they’re selling, we know that. What we want to ask, and often do, is what does buying a can of soda make us? For example, when Pepsi’s now infamous Kendell Jenner ad backfired, the twitter-verse made it clear that supporting Pepsi amounted to trivializing the civil rights movement.
In the same vein a campaign that equates supporting Coca-Cola to supporting Abdul Sattar Edhi adds to the company’s image, because in a case of intertextuality we know and love the Edhi Foundation, and are willing to hop onto the Coke express if it will help his mission.
Of course, the truly curious amongst us have been reading the fine print. For example, while the Coke ‘Bottle of Change’ campaign claims to double whatever amount is donated (in Coca-Cola bottles) to the Edhi foundation, yet there is a cap on this amount. The maximum that the corporate giant will donate to the foundation is Rs. 25 million, an impressive amount for sure, but a limited amount nonetheless. The tagline that they’ll double whatever you donate is hence a little misleading.
On the Pepsi front, the campaign is actually building on an initiative that was started by Illac Diaz of the Philippines. In 2006 his MyShelter Foundation began designing and implementing simple and sustainable lighting in impoverished parts of the country, and then the world. The key thing to point out is that initially, the campaign adopted a social entrepreneurial mode, whereby locals were trained to make the bottle lights and could set up low-cost businesses selling them. The focus was a transference of skills and ensuring that the community could sustain itself. Over the course of traveling to Pakistan, the model has shifted to philanthropy. The difference here is that ‘Litre of Light’ in Pakistan relies on donations, an in essence, relies Pepsi Co. and generosity rather than the community helping itself.
I won’t negate the humanitarian gains, but let’s not forget that the Rs. 25 million could have been donated without the celebrity laden publicity stunt.
Accepting the Hypocrisy
Let me just point out that don’t I blame NGOs for embracing corporate help when they face dwindling resources. Still if the idea is to help people, then we have to look beyond the neon-bright ad campaigns. Soda giants have had a turbulent relationship with the region.
In 2004, Indian MPs accused both Coke and Pepsi of selling products that contained pesticides and were not fit for human consumption.
In 2010, it was found that plants of both corporations were poisoning the soil and water resources of rural communities in India.
Finally, in 2014, mass protests in Uttar Pradesh lead to the shutting down of a Coca-Cola bottling factory. It had been accused of over-using scarce water, debilitating the resources of rural dwellers.
That similar outcries were not raised in Pakistan itself should alarm us.
And let us also not ignore that both companies are essentially killing the health of families across the world.
Coke even tried to play off this little fact some time ago with this perky attempt at CSR.
But a parody of the commercial highlighted how hypocritical it is for a beverage company to talk about health when it is selling a product that makes people unhealthy.
Ending on a Happy Note
Despite this mini-rant, let me assure you that I am not against CSR as a concept. To prove this, let me highlight one that I really liked. Two months ago, clothing retailer Leisure Club published a video as part of its long standing ‘Made of Pakistan’ campaign.
The gritty, raw production value of the video stands in sharp contrast to the aforementioned glamorous commercials. But the message is also much vaguer, and hence more honest. The intent is surely to add to the Leisure Club brand, but rather than equating one with the other (read; if you support Coke, you Support Edhi) the implication is that we should respect and love each other despite our differences.
I realize that a lot of people will be waving the ‘stop criticizing’ and ‘at least they’re trying’ flags. But here’s the thing, when something is trying to appeal to your humanity, you owe it to said humanity to fully understand what you’re accepting.