Where is the line between marketing social impact and exploitation?

Daniela Papi

Businesses with multiple bottom lines (ie. beyond profit), want to show the impacts they are making on the lives of their employees and/or clients.

Stories are used to tell how lives are transformed as a way to measure impact and market to potential customers. Some social impact businesses use the stories of their staff as a marketing tool. Rachel Faller, who runs a clothing shop in Cambodia called  KeoK’jay is turning away from the practice. She tells Daniela Papi in Forbes:

“We had an issue last year,” Rachel said, “where a staff member who was not HIV positive was accused of having HIV by a member of her community after she modeled for us. Even if someone chooses to share their experiences on their own, we don’t want to use that to sell products, as people might stigmatize all of our employees, many of whom want to move away from their pasts.”

“We’d rather just show that it’s possible to make good products while paying people fairly, being good to the environment and having a social impact, which I believe many fashion companies don’t take seriously enough.”

Papi raises some questions as to whether marketing the traumas and hardships faced by employees can cause harm. In many ways, this links well with the poverty porn discussion from Tuesday. In both cases, people connect to the stories of individuals. For businesses, the stories can increase sales which in turn can lead to better wages and increased employees.

Is Faller’s moral stance reasonable or does it put her business at a disadvantage?

In the case of companies like these, where the core social benefit is the employment of people from diverse backgrounds, the questions they are asking themselves might be, “Is it a waste of a competitive advantage to overlook this marketing opportunity and in effect gain more support for the employees?” But perhaps more need to be asking, “Can marketing the social impact end up harming the people we are trying to help?”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.