Rock star and activist Bono launched a new push Thursday in the battle against HIV and AIDS in Africa, unveiling a partnership with American Express and other companies. Proceeds from products sold by the team’s new brand, Red, will be funneled to that cause.
“So, here we are, fat cats in the snow, and I say that as one,” said the denim-jacketed U2 frontman, who was flanked by Italian fashion tycoon Giorgio Armani and corporate executives who joined him for the announcement at the World Economic Forum in this Swiss ski resort.
Red will market red-themed products from Converse, The Gap and Giorgio Armani, as well as a red American Express card to be offered initially only in Britain, starting next month.
Products branded Red will include sports shoes, T-shirts and sunglasses — some produced in Africa, some with African materials. A slice of the revenue — numbers vary by company and product — will go to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
“We sought out iconic companies who make iconic products,” said Bobby Shriver, who runs an organization called DATA — or Debt, AIDS and Trade in Africa — and has been working with Bono for several years.
Bono — sporting his trademark wraparound sunglasses — seemed a trifle bemused beside his suited, polished partners.
But he quickly turned serious, his voice cracking slightly as he recounted the story of an HIV-positive young African who chose to take his single dosage of anti-retrovirals himself, denying the critical drug to his girlfriend and possibly condemning her to death.
Each day, Bono said, brings 6,500 HIV-related deaths in Africa — and 9,000 new infections.
“We’re losing in the battle... Maybe it’s an Irish macho thing, but I really don’t like losing,” the Irish native said.
“I’m calling it conscious commerce for people who are awake, people who think about their spending power and say: ’I’ve got two jeans I can buy. One I know is made in Africa and is going to make a difference and the other isn’t. What am I going to buy?”’
Teaming with big business
American Express marketing chief John Hayes said the new American Express card — the back of which proclaims the goal of “eliminating” HIV in Africa — will transfer one percent of all purchases made with it to the project.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bono alluded to the potential discomfort with his new alliances.
“Some people will be very upset,” he said. “We’re working with big business, we’re working with big companies... [But] the problem just has to be sorted and we can’t do it just with governments alone.”
Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund, said that to date, “a very small proportion” of the fund’s current $4.7 billion comes from corporations or individuals.
The Global Fund was created to finance a dramatic turnaround in the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. To date, the fund has committed $4.4 billion in 128 countries to fight the three diseases.
“We’ve announced today a launch with four companies [but] we need 400,” he said, adding that success would also depend on whether American Express extends the Red card line to the United States as well.
He said he hoped Red would generate “tens of millions of dollars soon, hundreds of millions of dollars a little further downstream. Significant money.”
“If we succeed,” Bono interjected. “But we could fail. If people are jaded or cynical ... or genuinely not interested, then we fail. But we’ve tried. I think we’ve come up with a sexy, smart, savvy idea that will save people’s lives.”