I recently caught the tail end of a Tampax commercial that talked about its program to supply school-aged girls in Africa with sanitary pads. This caught my attention because of an experience I had a couple of years ago when I delivered a workshop at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Turns out, there’s a bit of controversy about the program with respect to the motives of Tampax.
In 2006, I delivered a workshop at the United Nations for its 50th session of the CSW. It covered the importance of language with respect to the issue of child sexual exploitation and how we can influence the media to change the way it often negatively depicts child victims.
Prior to my workshop, I attended a girls caucus session and was blown away by two young women from Kenya who spoke about the very issue Tampax is seeking to address.
One of the young women presented the fact that many girls miss an average of one school week per month due to menstruation and the lack of affordable sanitary supplies. A month’s supply, she reported, cost $2.00 and the average family subsisted on only $1.00 per month.
The young woman was part of a grass roots initiative to distribute reusable, cotton pads. The other young Kenyan woman challenged this initiative stating that water was so precious in her village, that using it to wash out a used pad was preposterous. As the debate raged on about how to tackle this problem, I began to feel sheepish about my upcoming workshop topic, fearing it would seem abstract and esoteric in comparison.
It was eye-opening to hear that something as basic as the lack of a hygiene product meant that on average, girls missed a month of school per year and that by high school they began to fall behind their male counter parts as the result.
So when I heard about the Tampax initiative, I was interested enough to look online to find out more about it. One of the first hits was a November 12 New York Times article that characterized the program as ambitious and questioned the motives of Proctor and Gamble in undertaking it.
Of course the initiative makes good business sense for Proctor and Gamble. The initiative introduces its product to a new market and by increasing the opportunities for girls in school it is more likely that those girls will be able to purchase that product when they later enter the labour market.
Does the fact that the initiative is not entirely motivated by altruism diminish its potential impact? Can big business do something good while still having an eye on future potential profit?
This topic was touched upon in episode #297 of the For Immediate Release podcast. Carmen van Kerckhove submitted a comment criticizing the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty for being insincere due to the fact that other brands under its parent company, Unilever, perpetuate the very beauty images Dove purports to be trying to counter. Show host Shel Holtz defended Dove stating that its management team could not be held responsible for other companies within Unilever and the fact that Dove stood to financially benefit from its campaign does not mean those behind it don’t genuinely believe in its tenets.
I think it’s wise to critically evaluate every company’s social responsibility activities. Clearly, some companies simply pay lip service to CSR by engaging in superficial, low-impact activities and should be called on it when they do.
On the other hand, I don’t think the fact that a company’s CSR activities benefit business means they should be criticized out of hand. I think if more companies saw the connection between genuinely trying to make a difference and improving their bottom line, the world would be better off.