By Chris Horst
TOMS defines cool. Their hip slip-ons (and recently announced eyewear line) are the garnishment of urban hipsters, but even much-less-cool folks like me love when companies give back. The winning equation for TOMS has been the “buy one get one” approach they pioneered: You buy slick kicks … and poor kids get free shoes. This equation has propelled TOMS to corporate superstar status.
All companies practice and celebrate their do-goodism. There’s even a cumbersome title for it – corporate social responsibility (CSR). Analyzing corporate charity models is one of my hobbies. Today’s doing good battle is between TOMS Shoes, the hipster heavyweight, and Whole Foods Market, the granola momma’s utopia.
TOMS: Lots of good, but some areas that could be tweaked. Please: Don’t chuck your TOMS at me just yet. Hear me out.
The good: They connect their product – shoes – to their charity – shoes for poor kids. Rather than supporting something entirely unrelated, like well-drilling in Africa (leave well-drilling to Aquafina and Dasani), TOMS’ charitable endeavors are a foot-in-shoe fit, you might say, with their business.
Needs Improvement: First, though fabulously intended, I’m in the choir of skeptics about the impact of distributing free shoes to poor kids. In short, giving away free stuff, whether its TOMS Shoes, school supplies, or castaway Super Bowl t-shirts, almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.
Second, their social mission is sold as an add-on to their business. Like many other companies, they slice off a share of revenue and use that to fund charity. Giving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but companies like TOMS celebrate the toppings rather than the sundae itself. They splash a “charity cherry” on top of their business, but often neglect to acknowledge the core contribution they make to society: Providing meaningful jobs and cool shoes to our world.
Whole Foods Market: Though much more nuanced than TOMS, their approach to doing good is “best in class.”
The good: On a recent trip to Whole Foods to buy a bouquet of flowers for my wife, Alli, I left deeply impressed with the way their charitable efforts are woven into their core business: Selling healthy, fresh groceries. Rather than highlight their food donations, or the food relief agencies they could financially support, they celebrate the livelihoods they support across the globe and the nutritious goods they provide to their customers. I got this simple flyer with my flower purchase featuring Alfredo, one of the farmers:
Let’s be clear: Whole Foods profits from my purchase. They are not motivated to work with Alfredo solely because they want to help the vulnerable. They work with Alfredo because he grows gorgeous flowers and enables shareholders to earn big returns.
Still, they do business with Alfredo in a redemptive, equitable way, shedding light on the real people – the breeders, bakers, and butchers – who produce their groceries. Like Whole Foods, Starbucks shines as a kindred spirit in the way they treat and celebrate their 75,000 coffee farmers.
The verdict: Like TOMS, Whole Foods gives a percentage of their revenue to provide additional support to farmers like Alfredo, but that becomes cursory, their add-on, to the livelihoods they support. Rather than voicing poetic kudos to their corporate tithing, Whole Foods highlights the inherent and more significant value their business brings to our globe. The clear winner? Whole Foods. They do good well.