What Is the Purpose of One for One Companies (Other Than to Make You Feel Good)?

Annie Castellani


If you walk the streets of urban America, chances are you might have noticed someone strutting in a pair of TOMS shoes. These lightweight canvas slip-ons are popular for their comfort and price tag of $48 a pair for the classic style. What you might not know is that many loyal customers also purchase TOMS because of the company’s influential socially responsible marketing strategy. Through its well-publicized One for One program, TOMS partners with 75 organizations in more than 50 countries to provide a free pair of shoes to a child for each pair sold commercially. 


Since TOMS launched in 2006, “buy one, give one” or “one for one” companies have become a major trend in the corporate social responsibility movement. Countless companies now subscribe to the belief that by donating one product for each product sold, business can be both profitable and beneficial to those in need. Such businesses manufacture and distribute anything from boots, blankets, backpacks and flashlights to food bars, soap, soccer balls and toothbrushes. As with TOMS, these businesses thrive on making the consumer feel good about doing good. In fact, many consumers are attracted to such initiatives because they make it easy to shop responsibly and to give back. And through widespread advertising of these initiatives on company websites and with powerful storytelling, businesses can build customer trust, thereby contributing to their bottom line in an increasingly consumer-conscious culture.


This model rightfully encourages the public to acknowledge global poverty and to take steps to address it. And by tying the commercial product to the actual donation, businesses can connect purchasers directly with the particular issue that the free aid intends to tackle. These buy one, give one companies also guide consumers to be more careful with their purchases. The long-term effect of such conscious consumerism is immeasurable.

But customers may think twice about supporting this business model if they stop to evaluate the actual impact of their donations on local communities. What many of these socially conscious buyers of goods do not realize is that their contributions to the distribution of free aid – without a corresponding commitment to sustainable development in the regions that receive donations – can damage already impoverished communities.


Some development practitioners argue that in the long run free aid initiatives can do more harm than good. Though handouts may be essential in the short term to address emergencies prompted by natural disasters or armed conflicts, they risk creating aid-dependent communities, destroying local economies, and ignoring the root causes of poverty. In essence, the buy one, give one model provides a convenient shortcut that makes the consumer feel good about a purchase, while at the same time it fails to address – and may even exacerbate – the real contributing factors to global poverty.


Companies that offer free goods to communities struggling with poverty can put local industries out of business by undercutting local prices. As pointed out a few years ago in Time Magazine, the influx of free clothing to African countries in the 1970s and 1980s led to the destruction of textile industries. A scarcity of local businesses can stall sustainable development and create a dependency on aid that may push economies into a race to the bottom when aid runs out.


These so-called band-aid solutions to poverty alleviation also may overlook the actual needs of the community. Such initiatives often fail to address the real causes of poverty, including lack of economic opportunity, corruption, legacies of government instability and armed conflict, poor food supply, and inadequate health and education services. For instance, TOMS temporarily relieves problems with healthcare and access to education by providing people with free shoes that prevent infection and allow them to attend school, but it does not offer long-term solutions to these issues once the shoes wear out.

The cost of shipping and packing free goods also might be a wasteful byproduct of the one for one model. Such expenses could instead be used to purchase goods from local businesses to support economic development or to fund education and healthcare initiatives. Others fear that aid drop-offs, like the ones done by TOMS, promote poverty tourism.




Rather than supporting a system that conflates corporate social responsibility with quick fixes to complex problems, companies and consumers may be better off focusing on initiatives that couple their donations with sustainable solutions to poverty alleviation. Instead of giving away free clothing and supplies, why not educate local manufacturers in the countries where companies distribute these products and integrate these actors into the global supply chain? As it stands, TOMS shoes are made in only three countries – China, Ethiopia and Argentina – though it provides free shoes in more than 50.


Trendy eyeglasses company Warby Parker, on the other hand, seems to have refined the one to one model to respond to the needs of the communities it serves. It does not merely donate pairs of glasses in 36 countries through its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” initiative. The company also funds nonprofit partners, such as Vision Spring, which train local, low-income entrepreneurs and empower them to start businesses that sell affordable eyeglasses. As the company notes, this initiative creates jobs and economic incentives to build sustainable businesses, and it “provides community members with the dignity to choose whether or not they want glasses and thereby avoids the culture of dependence that often accompanies foreign aid.”

Warby Parker’s model is effective because it seeks to tackle this core cause of poverty – lack of economic opportunity – with the aid of knowledgeable local partners. This approach eschews the culture of unpredictable aid generated by the traditional buy one, give one business model. And it allows local partners to tailor solutions to communities and reduce wasteful programs, thereby increasing efficacy and efficiency of these initiatives.


Companies also might try to source local materials to boost local economies. Ethiopia-based SoulRebels eco-friendly shoes locally sources the materials for its fair trade shoes, which are sold over the Internet. The company also creates well-paying jobs for Ethiopians that are three times the industry average, as well as free schooling, healthcare services, and transportation for disabled workers.


Companies seeking an effective corporate social responsibility model also may consider micro-loans to support local businesses. Veteran-owned Bull & Moose necktie partners with and donates profits to the nonprofit Kiva.org to raise money online for loans to underprivileged male entrepreneurs in North America. The company's motto, “Buy a Tie, Help a Guy,” speaks to the direct impact of the work.  


TOMS founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake Mycoskie seems to be listening to the criticisms of the buy one, give one model and adapting his business accordingly. Since 2011, the company has been donating “sight” in the form of free glasses, as well as funding to local partners for eye surgery and medical care. TOMS provides funds to the nonprofit Seva Foundation, which supports local organizations that conduct trainings for residents on the provision of professional eye care. The company also hires 30 artisans in Haiti to design and paint shoes as part of its Haiti Artist Collective, and these products are integrated into the global supply chain.


And in September of this year, Mycoskie announced at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting a new initiative to establish and aid local shoemakers in Haiti as part of a company goal to produce by 2015 one third of its giving shoes in the places where they are distributed. TOMS will employ 100 workers in Haiti over the next year, conduct job training, and assist employees with education for their families, healthcare and support for early childhood. The company also has potential plans to open manufacturing operations in Kenya for distribution in Africa.


This new focus on local economies presents a positive shift in the direction of TOMS. Perhaps other buy one, give one companies will catch on to this new trend ignited by the success of Warby Parker and TOMS and realize that their free aid giveaways might sell products and make their customers feel good, but they lack the sustainable impact that conscientious consumers should expect.


Author Bio:

Annie Castellani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. Follow Castellani on Twitter: @TheSustainCapit

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