Socially conscious shoemakers
TOMS, soleRebels and Nisolo all aim to be social change agents, but whose business model is the most effective?
Most of you are familiar with the TOMS Shoes One for One™ business model: a promise that for every pair of TOMS shoes you buy, a free pair will be given to a child in need.
We love TOMS and so do the millions of do-good fashionistas of the USA. Like TOMS, our objectives are to build a better world. So we need to ask, is TOMS’ One for One giving model a hand-out or a hand-up? Is TOMS creating a valuable social impact or is this just a charity marketing ploy? Importantly, what are the alternatives?
There is no doubt that founder Blake Mycoskie built the TOMS empire in good faith, but he has faced heavy criticism for having more success with his marketing campaign than his aid programme. Some critics even say that donating goods such as shoes or clothes can thwart economic growth by undercutting local manufacturers.
We agree that this model has its limitations, mainly because it aims to alleviate the effects of poverty (a lack of shoes) rather than the cause of poverty (a lot more complex than that). However, we admire Mycoskie for being willing to change his approach as he learns from experience. In a recent interview with Entrepreneur Magazine, he announced that TOMS was going through some major paradigm shifts.
TOMS plans to manufacture one third of their ‘Giving Shoes’ in the regions where they give them within the next couple of years. This will certainly create jobs in places where they are needed most. The challenge for TOMS will now be to ensure that these initiatives are financially and socially sustainable, so that they can pay fair wages and create a genuine and long-lasting impact in these underprivileged communities.
While the TOMS movement has spawned many copycat brands, there are other organisations around the world that offer feel-good footwear of an entirely different variety.
One company that we absolutely love is soleRebels. This handmade footwear company was founded almost a decade ago by visionary Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in the small Ethiopian village of Zenabwork. A believer in the ‘trade is better than aid’ principle, Bethlehem harnessed the creative talents within her local community, paid her workers a fair wage and created a line of shoes that are made from mostly recycled and organic materials. This eco-ethical approach (and the aesthetic appeal of her products) has created a loyal market for soleRebels shoes in over 30 countries around the world.
Checkout the soleRebels Ethos for a refreshing and transparent view of how a powerful social enterprise model can inherently empower communities.
Nisolo is another organisation that was born out of a desire to empower talented artisans. Based in Peru, the company’s goal is to address one of the main causes of poverty in the country: the lack of consistent employment. They provide local shoemakers with an opportunity to earn a decent living from their trade, by providing them with the capital and training they need to create exceptional quality handmade leather shoes. They also connect them with a market in which to sell them. Starting with shoemakers in Peru, Nisolo’s vision is “to serve as a springboard for impoverished entrepreneurs around the globe”.
A possible solution
In contrast to TOMS’ focus on mass-production, both soleRebels and Nisolo have highlighted the importance of supporting local jobs and preserving traditional trades in developing nations. These boutique providers have chosen to work at the grassroots level and tackle the actual causes rather than the effects of poverty.
Imagine a distributed product design and development model, where instead of mass manufacturing, individual artisans could take contracts with organisations like TOMS to develop unique and handmade products. This poses challenges such as quality assurance, but perhaps these are challenges that an empire like TOMS might just be ready to tackle?