Tesco’s latest charity drive aroused controversy on social media this week after giving customers small blue tokens for each purchase that they could then place in one of three clear boxes for a charity . Every six weeks the Tesco branch will divide €1,000 between the three charities according to how many blue tokens they have in their pot. The idea is nice; you can buy over-packaged food and some local group will benefit from your hardening arteries. Each branch of Tesco was allowed to pick the charities, and that women’s refuges received less money than animal sanctuaries as a result of consumer’s choices caused a bit of a stir.
It won’t come as a shock to anyone who has had even the slightest interaction with liberal types, that it’s fairly common that people give charitable donations to animals before people in need. It’s also fairly common for people to look at this type of scenario and say “Well at least there was a women’s refuge you could donate to” in the range of the deserving poor according to Tesco – and this post does not aim to condemn the people who hold that view. In a climate where the state is engaged in a mission to complete the wholesale abandonment of service provision to people in need, organisations will step in. The organisations who have stepped in to provide services were the state has failed, require funding, and it is very difficult for the people running them to refuse money where it is going spare. That’s not to say that NGOs and service providers should accept donations from any old capitalist multinational regardless of where it comes from or how it’s raised, merely to acknowledge that principles are all very well and good when you can afford to have them.
And while I’m deeply suspicious of people who campaign for the rescue of dogs in the streets before, say, looking for housing for homeless humans in the streets, there is a more important discussion to be had here, and that concerns the absolute myth of corporate social responsibility, and the belief in the idea that charity will solve the social ills of the world when in many cases the reality is that its continued existence doesn’t do anything but further exacerbate those ills. I hold my hands up and say I don’t have the answers to any of this (apart from smash capitalism and patriarchy obviously). Charitable endeavours much of the time are a sticking plaster for the injurious nature of capitalism. Yes, they hold people together, but dependence on state funding very often results in gagging them from articulating just how bad things really are.
Tesco may like to seem nice and cuddly because they are big outfit and they donate money to a women’s refuge, but we as a community need to acknowledge that the women’s refuge needs money because the state will not provide it in the first place. Putting aside for the moment another long but necessary discussion bemoaning the fact that we wouldn’t need women’s refuges if men would keep their fists to themselves, the state will not provide the funding needed, partially because corporations will not pay large sums in corporation tax which could be funnelled in to service provision. Many women are forced for to remain in situations of domestic violence simply because they cannot afford to leave. Poor women find it more difficult to escape domestic violence and I would be willing to put money on the fact that there have been people employed by Tesco sheltered in women’s refuges before – they only pay €9 per hour to their customer assistants, just above the legal minimum wage in the state. Perhaps if women were paid a little bit better, they would have more options other than underfunded domestic violence shelters when leaving abusive relationships.
Which children’s charity will criticise Tesco for making it cheaper to feed children rubbish high-sugar food when it could potentially one day be Tesco’s charity of the year? NGOs are regularly prevented from being overly critical of governments when they depend on state agencies and statutory bodies for funding to do their work. When state funding is becoming thinner and thinner on the ground, corporate social responsibility philanthropic programmes will inevitably make it more difficult for organisations to criticise the actions of businesses that make their existence necessary in the first place.
The Tesco website has a statement on corporate responsibility:
“As Ireland’s leading retailer, our stores serve a large number of communities throughout the country. Our interaction with these communities reminds us daily about our responsibilities as an employer, as a business and as a good neighbour…”
Of course, we know this is nonsense. Capitalist companies having corporate social responsibility because they care about the communities in which they are located, is a myth. As this Forbes piece shows, corporate social responsibility in the form of charitable donations is useful for businesses because it means more profits. Business energy efficiency = lower energy costs = increased profits. The caring business is a complete fallacy.
The Forbes article also describes how New Perimeter are a nonprofit law firm established by DLA Piper providing pro bono legal assistance in developing and post-conflict regions. What Forbes left out, is that DLA piper entered a partnership with Brazilian law firm Campos Mellos Advogados in 2010, who handled and encouraged Brazilian real estate deals for the building of infrastructure for the World Cup 2014. The same World Cup where the building of infrastructure necessary for it to take place left 250,000 people homeless. DLA Piper and Campos Mellos Advogados have also sent lawyers to Israel to encourage and promote commercial ties with Israel. So DLA Piper staff donate their time to New Perimeter and get to feel warm and fuzzy on the inside while their paid employment is to perpetuate other people’s misery. Caring corporate social responsibility does not exist.
After protests during the past few weeks across Ireland calling for an end to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip, Tesco announced that it would no longer stock fruit that came from illegal Israeli settlements. However Tesco has failed to clarify how it is going to differentiate between food from illegal Israeli settlements, and food from outside of them, or whether their boycott will extend to food packaged in illegal settlements but not necessarily grown there. It is a far cry from the BDS campaign that calls for a boycott of all Israeli products until Israel upholds international law. Tesco has form when it comes to being sketchy as to where supplies come from, but it got the nice headlines about Israeli fruit and got to talk about their responsibilities as an employer and neighbour at a time when they knew it was politically popular to do so, while still actually stocking Israeli produce.
So Tesco in Cabra might donate €300 to a women’s refuge in a few weeks, but will probably continue to stock Israeli produce and profit from the violation of rights of people in Palestine, and the actual murder of Palestinian women in Gaza.
Businesses engage in PR exercises that present a facade of social responsibility when their actual business practices are wildly different to what they portray, but it makes liberals feel good about their engagement with capitalism. Buy more stuff. Put another blue token in the box. Save a puppy, and so on. When the motive of an action is profit, there can be no such thing as corporate responsibility, it merely serves to legitimise neo-liberal economics and exploitation, and a few bob to the local women’s refuge won’t change the fact that it capitalism contributes to the need for funding for refuges in the first place.