TOMS Shoes pioneered the socially-conscious business platform and implementation of this successful model is rising steadily. The idea is simple: With each purchase, companies donate goods or services to those in need. And, best of all, there’s no catch — you don’t have to sacrifice your sense of style or originality in the name of altruism. Companies like TOMS offer goods that are just as trendy and durable as their mainstream counterparts. As responsible consumers we have a duty to seek out and support these attractive alternatives.
It’s easy to become immersed in the virtual microcosmic utopia that is Ann Arbor — forgetting that there are millions of people who are much less fortunate. TOMS-esque merchants make life-changing impacts on people halfway across the world. Known as the one-for-one model, for every pair of shoes bought, TOMS donates an additional pair to people in need in underdeveloped countries. Feet are often the only mode of transportation in these places, and as the TOMS website says, bacteria transmitted through soil is a leading cause of disease in developing countries.
Ironically, the countries that receive the bulk of donations are also the primary location of sweatshops, which often use inhumane labor tactics. Nike — the world’s leading shoe and sports apparel manufacturer — has been criticized for its involvement with these factories since the early 1970s. Just last April, two Honduran workers at a factory contracted by Nike brought their case before the public forum, Portland Area Worker’s Right’s board in Oregon, after being laid off with no notice or legally mandated severance pay. GAP, Inc. — the largest clothing retailer in the United States — has also come under recent fire for exploitative practices in places like India, where labor laws are virtually non-existent. Patronizing socially responsible companies decreases the demand for this exploitative labor.
TOMS and similar companies guarantee that the production of their goods adhere to labor standards at each step of production. While TOMS still contracts factories in China and Ethiopia, it certifies that these manufacturers obey a “strict code of human rights conduct (and the factories) are audited regularly to ensure that these standards are met.” Ethical labor practices are a necessary component of an ethically-based business plan. It would be hypocritical for a company to disregard workers’ rights while at the same time donating the final products to similarly disadvantaged people.
A sense of personal gratification is associated with items bought from responsible companies. There is the intrinsic sense of having done a good deed for the sake of humanity. But there is also pleasure in knowing that your product is a status symbol with social meaning. Too often, logos and insignia represent nothing more than a person’s disposable income.
Why not flaunt your status as a humanitarian? The sense of compassion that these products convey is a selling point for one-for-one condom company Sir Richard’s. After all, feet are not the only appendages that go bare for lack of access to proper means of protection. Founder Matthew Gerson states that the “global demand for condoms is huge, and only 10 percent of that need is met each year.” For every Sir Richard’s condom sold, one condom is donated to a country in need. The company’s phrase is “doing good never felt better,” and Gerson says that using a pack of Sir Richard’s indicates a more tender, intimate and caring lover. This is assuming, of course, that the person didn’t buy the product for the sole reason of sending this message.
One of the biggest incentives to shop responsibly is the price factor. Both Sir Richard’s condoms and TOMS shoes are comparably priced with their mainstream competitors. Other similar companies promote mainstream quality even at a discount. Warby Parker is another one-for-one company, which provides a pair of eyeglasses to a child in need for every pair purchased through its website. The eyeglasses are fashion forward and can be bought for less than the $300 benchmark that has been “artificially” set for prescription eyewear — selling for $95 a frame. And Warby Parker cuts out the middleman by maintaining its operation online.
While the TOMS-inspired one-for-one model has taken off, there are other ways to allow your product to speak to your beliefs and values. One such example is the I Miss You Brand, founded by University alum and former Michigan Men’s basketball team captain David Merritt. The company that sells T-shirts dedicates itself to spreading happiness through service and encourages customers to actively give back to their own communities. IMU’s unique service component offers customers a 25 percent discount for those who volunteer one hour of community service with IMU. This gives customers a tangible connection to the effects of their patronage.
Now that we have alternatives to corporate juggernauts — socially responsible alternatives — it’s incumbent upon each of us to seek them out and spread their collective messages.
Julian Toles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.