October 18, 2006—Under the blinking neon of New York City’s Times Square, the Gap has tacked a red T-shirt in its window this week, along with a sign boasting, “Can a T-shirt change the world? This one can.”

Welcome to “punk capitalism,” as rocker/philanthropist Bono described his (PRODUCT) RED campaign last week when five top U.S. retailers began channeling profits from the sale of trendy red consumer items to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Or is it “Capitalism 101”? Some activists find RED short on political change and say it may end up letting governments off the hook with regards to AIDS. “There is nothing punk about it,” says Asia Russell of Health GAP (Global Access Project).

Say what you will, RED takes the shopping philanthropy behind Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong cancer bracelets to a powerful new level. Activism and fundraising may not be for everyone, the argument goes, but pretty much everybody shops. RED hopes shoppers will feel warmer and fuzzier for buying RED Motorola Bluetooth headsets and RED Converse sneakers and think a little more highly of the corporations behind them too.

So far, it’s a hit. “The items are flying off shelves,” Erica Archambault at Gap public relations told POZ.com of the U.S. launch, now six days old and involving five U.S.-based firms. In the nine months since RED launched in the UK, $10 million has already been raised. And this is no fleeting fad. Every company signing onto RED makes a five-year commitment, and more join up all the time.

“RED is a brilliant and effective response to the greatest global crisis of our time,” says Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund.

Still, there are questions. Wealthy nations were intended as the Fund’s main contributors when it was established in 2001, and most have fallen way behind. “Can we allow governments to further privatize their public responsibilities?” asks Brook K. Baker, a professor at Northeastern University Law School who consults with international development agencies.

Of course, the Fund is underendowed by billions—not millions—with an estimated $10 billion needed annually between now and 2010. But at this point, every disincentive counts. “A worst-case scenario is that RED is used by both the private sector and the donors as a fig leaf to justify their own stinginess,” says Russell.

Another criticism is that participating companies are getting polished images and tax breaks without making any substantial contribution to developing countries (although Archambault says the Gap is teaming up with AIDS groups in Africa to get HIV testing and education to their African employees).

If the bottom line is quite simply getting money to fight AIDS, then (PRODUCT) RED is already there. AIDS activists wouldn’t mind a little civic-mindedness mixed in with the shopping—maybe RED companies could encourage consumers to lobby politicians on AIDS issues, for instance.

As the cash mounts, the hope all around is that Americans slipping RED iPods in and out of their RED Armani jacket pockets will at least pick up an AIDS awareness message.