June 2013 by Bob Lupton
Blake Mycoskie has hit the compassion mother-lode. Charismatic young founder and CEO of Tom’s Shoes, Blake has devised a formula for combining consumerism and charity that is nearly irresistible to Western shoppers with adequate pocketbooks and big hearts. Buy a pair of his alpargata design Argentinean slip-ons and he will donate a pair of these canvas shoes to a barefoot child in a desperately poor village. His buy-one-give-one strategy is not about building a business, he says. It is about sparking a global movement to provide shoes to the poorest of the poor – children who contract soil-borne diseases that attack their lymphatic systems, children who are excluded from school for lack of shoes. His idea has caught the attention of Vogue, GQ, the New York Times, to name but a few, and has skyrocketed him to celebrity-charity status. His imaginative “One Day Without Shoes” awareness campaign that encouraged Americans to go barefoot for a day drew the support of such notable partners as AOL, Flickr, and Discovery Channel. His “one-for-one” business model has been heralded by respected business leaders as “caring capitalism,” a successful model of social entrepreneurship, and one of the top ten most innovative retail companies of the year. He was even invited to the White House to discuss ideas for US economic policy. Tom’s Shoes are now carried by more than 500 retailers. More than two million pairs have been distributed free to poor children in 40 countries.
But Blake has not been without his critics. His collaboration with evangelical mission groups has drawn fire from the more political correct voices accusing him of using his marketing success to proselytize (accept Jesus and get a pair of shoes). Some say the he is distributing shoes to children who already have shoes – not to the barefoot poorest of the poor as his advertising claims. Others point out that his model is not sustainable – what happens to children when their shoes wear out in a few months? But the dissenting voices are weak in comparison to the roar of approval from throngs of warm-hearted consumers who feel a warm satisfaction in knowing that their purchase is making a difference to a needy child somewhere. Some of these consumers even get the opportunity to participate in “shoe drops” – staged events where donors get to personally “fit” needy children with their new pairs of shoes. This is celebrity charity at its finest.
Patrick Woodyard also has a shoe strategy for helping the poor. He is another young entrepreneur who has started an innovative for-profit shoe business that is gaining momentum. His Nisolo brand has not yet reached the volume of Toms Shoes – neither in sales nor notoriety – but his heart for helping the poor is much like Blake Mycoskie’s. His methodology, however, is strikingly different. Patrick saw the grinding poverty in Peru but he saw something else – the remarkable talent of local craftsmen to design and create quality shoes, some even from old tires and scrap leather. Instead of adopting a give-away strategy, Patrick decided to build on the capacities of local artisans. His Nisolo line features fine, handcrafted shoes that are marketed internationally with the motto “Wear change.” His website states: Our goal is to empower talented artisans in the developing world, allowing them to shape their future by way of their extraordinary work. Patrick is convinced that giving shoes away does not address the root causes of poverty. While he does invest 10% of his profits to provide educational opportunities for local children, he believes that employment, not donations, is the most effective way to enable the poor to emerge from poverty.
Patrick did his due diligence as he shaped strategies for his Nisolo enterprise. He discovered that even the poorest villages seem to have an ample supply of shoes available. Millions of used shoes find their way into the most desolate places – some given away by non-profits, some sold on the local market. The shoe-drop idea, he found, was an awkward, feel-good publicity event that had no lasting economic benefit. Worse, give-away programs undercut small entrepreneurs trying to make a living on local production. Used clothing imports, for instance, had caused unemployment to deepen by 50% in the African textile industry from 1981 to 2000. In Nigeria alone a half million workers lost their jobs (1992-2006) due to the inflow of donated clothing. Patrick’s research convinced him that jobs, not donations, were what the poor needed. His Nisolo strategy has strengthened and generated hundreds of small, profitable businesses that have spawned thousands of decent paying jobs.
“Buy-one-give-one” or “Wear change.” Both marketing models are motivated by genuine compassion for the poor. Both move the poverty needle – but in opposite directions.