For several months our sister organization (RED) has been working with Elle magazine on a big project to turn more than 30 of the international editions of Elle (RED) over the course of February and March.
In the US issue, which is hitting newsstands this week, there will be a 2-page spread of (RED) content that includes a letter from Bono and a feature on actress Scarlett Johansson’s trip to Rwanda with (RED). Other country editions, including Italy and Spain, will include (RED) content and a cover with (RED) supporter Gisele Bündchen.
ELLE asked me to turn this page (RED) to honor the fact that women are at the vanguard of a movement to stop the greatest health crisis in 600 years: HIV/AIDS. First off, I want to ask you, Why is it that women are much less willing than men to accept a world where 5,500 people a day die from a preventable, treatable disease? Could it have something to do with that second X chromosome? Do we men have some gene that makes us look the other way—that gives us a penis but no conscience?
Me, I don’t believe in biological destiny. I think women care more because women bear more of the burden. Almost two thirds of Africans with AIDS are women. In South Africa, nearly 90 percent of new infections occurred in 15-to-24-year-old females. (I can’t get my head around that fact, let alone get it out of my head.) I could fill this whole page with such numbers… but while statistics paint a picture, they don’t tell a story. So here goes.
Six years ago, I was traveling across Africa. AIDS at that time and place was a death sentence, taking out not just the youngest and oldest, who are always more vulnerable to disease, but also those in the prime of their lives—parents and others with important jobs to do. Communities were being stripped of teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, businesspeople, builders— their workforce, their life force. In the worst hit parts of Uganda, nine-year-old girls were left in charge of raising their younger brothers and sisters. Orphans raising orphans. In the twenty-first century.
The rest of the world made sympathetic noises—but did little more than that. Meanwhile, African AIDS activists were doing everything they could to stop the spread of the virus. During my trip, we met with a group in Johannesburg to see how we could support their work. One of the most surreal moments in my life—and there have been a few—took place in a canteen with 20 people, all of them HIV-positive, who spent every hour of every day traveling from place to place to warn of the dangers of HIV. These volunteers explained how the stigma of the disease puts people off getting tested, but the workshops they were doing at schools, businesses, and street corners were having a big impact. It was compelling stuff. The rest of us felt energized, uplifted.
Then, at the end of our meeting, I overheard a quiet debate among the activists as to which of them would get the single course of antiretroviral therapy (ARVs) they’d just received. There were not enough life-saving pills to go round. And so, together, they had to decide who would get the pills and who would go without.
I was stunned. These volunteers were doing their best to save others’ lives—but could not save their own. Like firefighters rushing into a burning building and being consumed by the flames.
Our science and technology, it turned out, were more advanced than our conscience. We in the West had the means to save lives, but we lacked the resolve.
What can we do? Well, the short answer is: a lot. At the time of that trip, only 50,000 Africans had access to ARVs. That figure today is 2.1 million. That’s because a lot of people have been doing a lot of things, in Africa and all over the world. In the face of the AIDS emergency, we’ve got to gang up on the problem.
Which brings me, improbably, to shopping. Not everybody is able to march to the barricades—not everybody owns a pair of proper military boots—but there’s something you can do even in Manolos. (RED) is the consumer wing of a much wider movement of activists, and consumers have more power than they realize. They have power in their pockets. (RED) raises money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS—$120 million so far. That is enough to buy drugs for more than 750,000 people for a year. (RED) funds prevention and counseling programs as well as treatment, and is now the thirteenth biggest contributor to the Global Fund; it’s giving more than many countries.
The money comes from corporations doing the right thing—the (RED) thing. Some call it “conscious consumerism.” The companies involved don’t mark up their products to get you to pay a premium. They take a piece of the profits from every (RED) thing you buy, and they use it to buy lifesaving medication for those who can’t afford it. (RED) meets consumers on the main street, on the high street, in the malls, online—and in magazines like this one. Some of the coolest brands have signed up, and depending on where you live, you can drink (RED), wear (RED), talk (RED), type (RED), and work (RED). You can also hear (RED)—through (RED)Wire, our subscription music service.
As I said, it’s just one flank of a much bigger army, but the (RED) brigade is pretty impressive. We have some amazing women involved—Scarlett Johansson, Gisele Bündchen, Christy Turlington, Penélope Cruz, Julia Roberts, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Garner. And some men who aren’t bad, either—Kanye West, Djimon Hounsou, Chris Rock, and the great Steven Spielberg. Then there are the millions of men
and women whose names we don’t know, but whose (RED) purchases are doing nothing less than keeping people alive.
I come from a line of traveling salesmen on my mother’s side. One of them, my Uncle Jack, always told me that when you’re making your pitch don’t get the door slammed in your face. I know I’m in danger of that right now. These are tough times for a hard sell, hard to talk about shopping when everybody’s belt-tightening. Everyone is more conscious than ever about where they spend their hard-earned cash. (RED) is not asking you to flock to the stores for the sake of it. But if you find yourselves browsing, we are asking you to choose (RED) where you can—for the sake of those who can’t ask you themselves.