You have likely noticed the growing phenomenon in the world of conspicuous consumption. It’s called “one-for-one” and it is premised on the age old marketing tactic of “buy one, get one,” only it involves a do-gooder spin where for every purchase you make that same product will go to a person in need. Popularized by Toms shoes, it continues to show up in all types of products from glasses, to headphones, toys, and bags. And it is part of a growing movement of using social issues to drive both purchase and social impact. The strength of this approach lies in leveraging commerce to generate large sums of money that can then be used to tackle pressing social problems. And it has the potential to generate far more money than charitable, foundation, and government contributions.
A recent article here on Co.Exist called out all of us who wear our Warby Parker glasses while drinking our Starbucks (Red) coffee and indulging in Ben & Jerry’s Save Our Swirled ice cream (to address climate change of course). In essence, they argued that these are just narcissistic acts of hedonists who enjoy feeling good, because their purchases do not make one iota of difference in actually creating social change.
What a bummer.
But before we rid our closets and shelves of our “do good” products, let’s take a moment to pause, examine what the authors are saying and consider a different perspective that might make us feel good (and do good).
Here’s their argument in a nutshell.
Socially conscious purchases and activities might make you feel good but they aren’t actually contributing to deep-rooted social change. This is because they are band-aid attempts at generating social impact where there is no direct link between actions and outcomes. Consumers cannot buy their way to equality and empowerment and shouldn’t even try. The authors then go on to add:
- These types of purchases are superficial, flashy efforts that use consumption as the vehicle for participation generating social capital for the consumer versus positive global impact.
- Conscious consumerism is nothing more than a quest for self-satisfaction that exploits the very people it aims to serve.
- The “X for Good” model is nothing more than a trend. And a trend should never be confused with a movement because trends, are fleeting and replaceable. They are piecemeal efforts that lack a deep understanding of local contexts, long-term commitments and degrade local actors. Movements, on the other hand, necessitate transformative, big picture thinking that alters the distribution of power and increases self-sufficiency and access to resources.
Aside from the “all or nothing” approach to their argument, not to mention the righteous overtones that puts all us “wannabe do gooders” in our place for not being pure enough in our work on making the world better, here is why I disagree with their argument.
We need to help onboard people who are less exposed to causes
A distaste for conscious consumerism neither acknowledges nor celebrates the good intentions of people who want to contribute and don’t know how. Conscious consumerism is a way in to causes and issues for many people, in fact, most people. And while it is not enough to solve social issues (no one ever said it was), nor exercise one’s civic engagement, it is a great start and helps to spur others to do the same.
We need to blur the lines between profit and purpose
What lies beneath conscious consumerism and X for Good models is a reflection of the blurring of the lines between profit and purpose, commerce and cause and the division of responsibility between sectors. The authors are so quick to write off the one-for-one model that they completely miss the fact that companies are recognizing there is a new role for them in society, one that can provide large scale social impact. But in order to grow both the social impact and the business, there needs to be a sustainable revenue model. So rather than rejecting the model, we should embrace it as one of the drivers for the future success of business. And that’s a good thing.
We need to embrace new models, not necessarily movements
Why be so fixated and dismissive of other, perhaps less “deep” forms of engagement and change? By arguing that the only change that is worthwhile is change that fully alters the current economic system, the authors fail to see that maybe, just maybe, some of the hundreds of millions of dollars and intellectual capital generated by the one-for-one and “X for Good” models may in fact be contributing to solving social problems.
Bemoaning Toms founder Blake Mycoskie for making millions of dollars fails to acknowledge that the company is creating deep-rooted partnerships to improve eyesight, access to water, and reduce bullying. The authors write off social product marketing without looking at its value. Grameen Danone is incredibly successful with its yogurt that is feeding malnourished kids in south Asia. Same goes for Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap that is reducing disease for millions of kids through its hand washing campaign. And what about Walgreens’s Get a Shot Give a Shot program that provides much needed vaccines to children through the UN Foundation. All a waste of time?
How can you categorize the myriad of X for Good initiatives as merely a vanity play when the evidence suggests otherwise? Don’t tell the kids in Northern Uganda who are getting an education and learning incredible life skills through the creation of Football for Good that the social purpose business (aimed at providing fair trade soccer) isn’t having an impact. None of these examples are social movements, but they are materially contributing to social change.
Creating change comes about in many ways
There is no one way to bring about social change. Yet the authors seem to imply there is a right way and a wrong way to do “systems change”–a major shift in the power dynamics, political and governance structures and systems of a society. In this worldview, unless there is a major overhaul of the system, poverty alleviation or educational access cannot be achieved. But this view only recognizes change through the lens of “revolution,” where there are winners and losers and often takes a long time to materialize in order to overthrow the current system. But what conscious consumerism and “X for good models” are doing is more “evolutionary systems change,” changing the system through a series of innovations and win-win scenarios.
Case in point is Warby Parker and their social enterprise work where people in developing countries are trained to do the eye testing and sell glasses, creating a social enterprise model that lifts them out of poverty. This model of poverty alleviation would not happen without the one-for-one model, which is why it is popping up everywhere.
I recently met an incredible woman who created Smile2Smile, a social purpose business that sells beautifully handcrafted dolls where for every doll sold another one is given to a child in need in Haiti. She is now an employer of a handful of Haitians, providing them with good jobs and helping to lift them out of poverty.
That is the power of a social purpose business that benefits both consumer and those less fortunate. Evolutionary systems change celebrates and embraces innovation and allows for people to get on with the business of doing good and making a material impact in the world.
The future of business and social impact lies in the integration of profit and purpose because it is the most direct path to large-scale social change. One-for-one and “X for good” models may not be perfect, but they have created a new world where people can exercise their values through their purchasing decisions. They have also moved companies to realize that this “cause thing” could actually be good for business. And the more this happens, the more social impact will be created. I for one feel good about that.