Philanthropic Consumerism

I recently bought a new pair of glasses. Yes, my second pair in a year, but one of my justifications for the splurge was that the company I purchased them from has a “buy a pair, give a pair” program in which my purchase gave a pair of glasses to someone in need. I have shoes that have done the same thing, which causes me to wonder about the driving motivation behind these movements.

One of the characteristics of my generation that I find admirable is that as narcissistic as others say we are, many of us want to make the world a better place. Perhaps our idealism comes from our affirmative, nurturing up-brings, but I think the increase in the number of college graduates who go to work for organizations like Teach for America or the Peace Corps presents strong evidence that we don’t want to just get ahead – we want to contribute something in the process. This concept, in the instance of these companies that are predicated on the grounds of buying/giving, has extended to our consumerist habits as well.

The models are similarly executed at the most well-known companies which have a one-for-one policy. My glasses, for example, purchased from Warby Parker, result in Warby Parker donating money or glasses to a non-profit which works on providing vision-related resources to underserved individuals. One of Warby Parker’s non-profit partners is Vision Spring, an organization that trains entrepreneurs in the developing world to start their own businesses selling affordable glasses, thus providing jobs and a much-needed community service simultaneously. TOMS shoes is similar in that they donate a pair of TOMS for each pair purchased to a non-profit organization that they have partnered with to distribute the shoes in a needy area.

Could the same work be done through giving money directly to those organizations? Certainly. However, I think that the power of these movements is that they harness the dollars of consumers who wouldn’t otherwise donate toward eyewear or footwear for those in developing countries, but they will if it is vogue and they can simultaneously get a trendy product. This model is not sustainable for all companies to embrace, as it is dependent on the company producing a good that consumers want to purchase, as well as finding a niche in the market. Airwalk, for example, has produced a line of Hope Shoes that sell at Payless shoe stores, for which Airwalk will donate one pair of shoes to someone in need for each pair purchased. However, the shoes look like TOMS impostors, thus it seems as though Airwalk is attempting to tap into consumers’ desire to do good with their purchases as a marketing ploy rather than out of genuine concern for the poor. The question becomes, if Airwalk was committed to providing shoes to the needy, why don’t they make this a company-wide initiative?  Likewise, there is a degree of trust that must be built between customers and the company.

Hopefully more companies and consumers will embrace philanthropy as central to their product and promotional choices, but in a meaningful, significant way. It may be the idealist in me, but I believe that purchases can have an influence on the economic standings of the less fortunate around the world, and that’s more than a good enough excuse to purchase a second pair of glasses.

Image via Flickr user Tim Green

Hanna Woodburn

Hanna Woodburn is a former CCT student. She found herself in D.C. following the completion of her undergraduate degree from Colorado Christian University in Denver, CO where she studied Human Communication, Marketing, and Business. For three years prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked for the legislative branch where she specialized in constituent communication and outreach efforts while managing a broad portfolio of legislative issues. In CCT, she is interested in gaining a greater understanding of how communication and technology can impart change on organizations, among other topics. Hanna blogs for gnovis on art, media, and our digital lives. She also can be found on Tumblr where her blog is predominately about her cat.