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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ethics in the BoP Marketplace

By Derek Newberry

I ran across this Fair and Lovely ad on YouTube recently. For those who don't know, this product is a skin-lightening cream that was at the center of a debate last year over the value and impact of a BoP approach to poverty alleviation.



The ad is in Hindi, but the message is clear: lightening your skin with this HLL product will open doors for you, leading to a happier more successful future. I support BoP initiatives in general but don't believe that every successful attempt to market to the poor should be lauded.

This ad crosses a line for me and last year I found myself personally agreeing with the BoP critics' point on this specific product. As a consumer who has wasted a few dollars of his own on useless items, I can say that we often get goaded by ad campaigns with empty promises into irrationally buying products that do not serve our best interests.

But it got me thinking about how we draw the line between BoP initiatives that deserve our support, and general market activity involving the BoP that it may not be our place to condemn, but that we should neither hold up as a model example.

Two items come immediately to mind as part of a BoP litmus test:

  • Dignity: Does this activity tap into BoP markets in a dignified manner? The BoP hypothesis, after all, is all about treating the BoP with dignity by including them in the global marketplace, so does the business model treat the BoP with dignity or exploit insecurities and race/class divisions?
  • Sustainability: Does this activity align with a vision for a future economic system that is environmentally sound? Or is it at least not clearly a major detriment to the Earth's resources?

I know in the nitty gritty details, it can be hard to apply this test concretely and consistently, but this idea of standards for ethical BoP engagement are something to consider. What do readers think? Would you add or subtract anything from this litmus test?

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