According to today’s Globe and Mail (Toronto), Kraft’s Maxwell House coffee will soon be airing new Canadian television ads that may do less to promote their coffee than to assuage consumer guilt: Selling good feelings, one cup at a time. In short, the idea is for Maxwell House — who, when it comes to Third World exploitation, represents one of the (Big) four horsemen of the Fair Trade apocalypse — will promote how they’re spending only $19,000 to produce a TV ad that typically costs $245,000, passing the savings on to good causes in your name.

As we’ve mentioned before, for some reason coffee is a bizarre lightning rod for consumers with economic, social justice, and environmental causes. (Meanwhile, $29 DVD players made by cheap labor at river-polluting Chinese factories and clothing produced in Haitian and Honduran sweatshops fly off the racks at Wal-Mart with remarkable impunity.) At issue is the consumer marketing and public relations stunt of the new millennium known as corporate social responsibility, or CSR — sister to the “buy green” oxymoron.

In case you’ve been living under a pet rock, “buy green” has given us the perversely mixed messages of green shopping malls and ceramic coffee cups meant to look like environmentally unfriendly (and flavor-unfriendly) paper cups (what happened to “reduce” and “reuse”?). It’s also given us the bogus concept of carbon offsets, a falsely feel-good currency that modernizes the ad pitch “the more you buy, the more you save” by perpetuating the illusion that you can save the planet by consuming more stuff.

The failures of corporate social responsibility

While “buy green” capitalizes on environmental guilt as an unspoken part of a sales pitch, CSR — as so eloquently stated in a recent issue of The Economist — has three main objections: “that it encroaches on what should be the proper business of government; that CSR is a sideshow; and that it involves playing with other people’s money.”

In a legal system that recognizes the rights of corporations as no different from those of a living, breathing person, it’s easy to be cynical about the inherent social value of business — especially in this city. Producing useful and desirable goods and services for society at an attainable cost, employing people with paying jobs to do so, and raising living standards in the process is readily dismissed as a social good. (CSR devalues this more than it does anything else.) So we favor the overly simplistic view that all business is evil business.

At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical liberal arts college freshman/dufus who first discovers Ayn Rand and Objectivism, the problem arises when the when the business of business becomes something other than business — i.e., charitable giving. When that happens, who’s minding the store?

The failures of consumer social responsibility

Instead of telling us you’re going to donate $5 to save alcoholic chimps if we purchase your product, how about following lawful business practices to produce it, getting rid of the overhead of collecting and distributing this extra $5 a pop, charging $6 less for the product by focusing on efficiencies, and reasonably expecting me to get off of my lazy ass and put a check in the mail — funded by the savings and made out to the charity of my choice? (And if those business practices are unacceptable, don’t give the government a free pass but demand a universal law for everyone to follow — instead of supporting a system of under-the-table kickbacks from corporations.)

We can talk the talk about corporate social responsibility, but consumers hold the economic purse strings of this country. Where are consumer social responsibilities in this if, in a world defined by globalization, we effectively outsource our personal responsibility for charitable giving to corporations — some random, third party middleman — because we’re either too lazy or too cheap to do it ourselves?

When Starbucks and the Big Four coffee producers started jumping on the Fair Trade bandwagon — the very companies that were the original impetus for Fair Trade organizers — it arguably did more to discredit Fair Trade than to pump up the images of these corporations. So when the Big Four likes of Maxwell House start proudly wearing CSR badges on their chests, what will be its bigger impact on image: improvements to the Maxwell House brand, or devaluation of CSR itself?