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Re-siting corporate responsibility: The making of South Africa's Avon entrepreneurs

Catherine Dolan and Mary Johnstone-Louis

Keywords: CSR, development, entrepreneurship, gender, poverty reduction

Abstract

The bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) approach is championed as a way to deliver both corporate profits and poverty reduction. This article explores how “the poor” are repurposed as the instruments of ethical capitalism through the archetypal BOP model—Avon Cosmetics. A harbinger of “compassionate capitalism,” Avon has long stylized its entrepreneurial opportunity as a channel to a transcendent realm of self-actualization and social transformation. The company pursues this vision through a set of discourses and calculative practices that aim to produce industrious, self-disciplined, and empowered “entrepreneurs.” However, while BOP systems like Avon may provide a viable income stream for “poor” women, the practices through which women are “converted” into enterprising subjects can confound their intended “empowerment” effects. The article suggests that while targeting the “bottom of the pyramid” may elide the distinction between the maximization of profit and the imperatives of sustainable development, devolving corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the “entrepreneurial poor” raises questions about the implications of “making poverty business.”

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