When stern-looking models wearing the colors of Africa sashayed down a New York runway in February, it was hard to imagine the well-heeled event had anything to do with alleviating human suffering. But 30 of the ensembles, created by upscale designers such as Donna Karan, were later auctioned on eBay to raise an expected $150,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition, an organization trying to aid victims of the crisis in western Sudan.
It's not surprising that an image-obsessed industry in a profit-driven culture would turn out such an event—nor is it that buyers purchased outfits worth thousands of dollars to "help" orphans in Sudan. As a society, we like to buy things, and we like to buy them with a clean conscience.
Companies have seized on our desire to do good while looking good. Today we can fight any number of social ills by buying products whose sales are directed toward helping others. For example, through the celebrity-infused (Product) Red campaign—a collection of companies including Gap and Armani—you can buy a T-shirt to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB and in the process help direct money toward buying and distributing anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. "As First World consumers, we have tremendous power," says the campaign's Web site. "What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet." Dramatic, but true—and consumers are increasingly realizing it.