The Buy-One-Give-One Business Model Must Get Smarter

OhNoDoom! Collective/CC BY 2.0

Since way back in 2006, we've been excited about TOM'S Shoes model of buy-one-give-one philanthropy. We even invited founder Blake Mykoskie on TreeHugger Radio for an interview.

This model has spread far and wide. With everything from condoms to aquaponics getting the consumer activist treatment.

But things aren't always simple.

Chad Hamre already wrote on our pages how Buy One Give One can have unintended consequences, distorting local markets and providing bandaid solutions rather than addressing root causes.

That meme is being taken up by Leon Kaye over at Guardian Professional, arguing that Buy One Give One needs to get a whole lot smarter if it is to fulfill its mission:

Other entrepreneurs believe the best approach to tackling poverty is to build the factories and goods in the regions that otherwise would receive the donated items. Tal Dehtiar launched Oliberté with the goal of manufacturing shoes in Ethiopia out of materials sourced from countries including Liberia and Mauritius and exporting them to America. Dehtiar sniffs at Toms for continuing a cycle of charity when what is really needed in Africa is jobs and investment. Uwezo also manufactures shoes in Africa, but donates a pair to a poor child for every one purchased, and those shoes, too, are manufactured locally.

As Kaye suggests, the real issue is not whether Buy One Give One is good or bad, but rather that all good-for-the-world work must be done with a strategic understanding of both the problems we are trying to alleviate and the potential for unintended consequences in doing so.

Buy One Give One has shown us a MASSIVELY important fact: people want to do good, and are looking for ways to do it. This should not be underestimated. But the next step of the challenge is to figure out how to channel that good will so it actually creates lasting change. "Just doing something" is not enough, unless we are only interested in assuaging our consciences.

We must listen to the people we are trying to help, and then do things that actually help them.

Tags: Activism | Charities | Economics | Poverty