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Warby Parker may have a better 'buy one, give one' model

Toms Shoes popularized 'one for one' giving. Warby Parker adds training low-income local entrepreneurs to start their own businesses selling glasses at affordable prices.

By Monica GerberGlobal Envision / December 22, 2011

The Dalai Lama cleans his glasses during a session at a conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in October. Eyewear maker Warby Parker sells eyeglasses to customers and then provides a pair for free to someone in need around the world, known as a 'buy one, give one' model.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File

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We already know that good marketing does not equal good aid. Toms Shoes has earned a fair amount of criticism for its “One for One” model – a pair of shoes is donated to a child in need for every pair bought by the consumer. But, after seeing the marketing benefits, more and more for-profit businesses are using a similar model to donate goods in developing countries.

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Here's the basic problem of the “One for One” model: When everyone in a community can get a free pair of shoes, the local shoe vendor goes out of business. Not only does it hurt the local economy, but it is also a short-term solution that creates long-term problems.

Toms model may also encourage poverty tourism, as the company allows people to pay to travel along with distribution trips as shoe fitters. Niharika Jain writes more in-depth about the unintended consequences of charitable giving for the Harvard Crimson, and Peace Corps volunteer Zachary Mason discusses Toms Shoes from a public health perspective, questioning the cost-effectiveness of the model for reducing disease.

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Despite the unintended consequences of its “One for One” program, Tom's has a cult following. Chances are if you don’t already have a pair, you know someone who does. Is Toms merely a fashion statement, or are consumers drawn to the company for its cause, creating an atypical status symbol?

It’s hard to know what motivates individual purchases of Toms products, but a 2010 Cone Cause Evolution study shows that 85 percent of consumers surveyed feel more positively about companies that support a cause they care about. When price and quality are equal, most consumers choose the product supporting the cause.

If we want to be socially conscious consumers, it’s important to understand the impact of Toms and similar products. We can learn from Toms' marketing success, but to alleviate poverty in the long-term we need to promote sustainable programs the support local economic development.

Warby Parker, another for-profit enterprise that donates its product in developing countries, is getting a lot of attention for the innovative way that it sells eyewear to the consumer and sends glasses around the world to people who can’t afford them – earning them the B Corp status. Like Toms, they are popular among the fashion conscious and have a hugely successful marketing campaign.

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