Is Nisolo 'just another TOMS shoes?'
Today is TOMS annual “Day Without Shoes” awareness campaign, and also a good time to explain HOW and WHY Nisolo is different from TOMS.
Due in part to the popularity of the brand, an enormous debate has been fueled in recent years over the Buy One, Give One (BOGO) model, or, “One for One,” in TOMS language. A long list of critics argue that BOGO is not sustainable and that most donations in the developing world inevitably cause more harm than good. Academics and aid workers alike argue that businesses that employ the BOGO model often undermine local markets, and strengthen dependency on foreign donations. The argument surrounding the debate parallels this classic teaching: “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will feed himself for life.”
While I’ll get into the details later, to put it briefly, Nisolo differs in that we do not give away material donations in developing countries as part of our cause. While we recognize that there are rare cases of extreme need in which a donation may be a legitimate short-term solution, our goal is to instead empower impoverished entrepreneurs by supporting job creation and access to quality education in the developing world. Our products are made by incredibly talented artisans who simply lack the capital and access necessary to seek markets outside of their traditional communities. Striving to “guide” rather than to “give,” our hope is to equip the poor with the tools necessary to help themselves (or, in this case, buy their own shoes).
Now, back to the topic at hand…
Ever since the vision for Nisolo first started to come together, we have received one consistent remark by newcomers: “Oh, so this is just another TOMS shoes, right?” Because of our passion for the importance of sustainability in development projects, our first instinct is to want to say “NO!” and jump into the fifty reasons of how we are different. While that temptation is still relevant, let me first start by expressing a sense of gratitude for the brand.
If you ask just about anyone between the ages of 13 and 30 for an example of a socially conscious brand, they will most likely reply with “TOMS.” If you had asked that question five years ago, I would bet that most people would have replied with something like this: “Socially conscious brand, what is that?” Unarguably, TOMS has certainly made children happy around the globe. However, we should be thankful for TOMS not so much for the shoes they have put on “needy” feet but for the way they have enabled consumers to realize the positive impact they can have through their purchases.
TOMS has effectively caused some 2 million customers to choose a brand based on the recognition of the “good” that comes from their purchase. I think that this “Movement” will continue to fuel the growth of conscious consumerism in the developed world, and for this reason, I think we should all be thankful for the impact TOMS has had on our culture.
Now, in order to explain why we have decided not to inherit the BOGO model for Nisolo, I have to trace back to my early involvement with TOMS. My first exposure to TOMS and the idea of One for One came as a sophomore in college in the fall of 2006. My initial response was a lot like that of the general public. I thought “Wow, what a great concept.” In turn, I jumped on the band wagon and made TOMS awareness and sales events one of the main yearly activities of an umbrella activist organization I directed in college called Hope for Africa.
After working in Uganda and other countries in the developing world for a few summers, I started to think twice about the BOGO model. People like Rosanna in Paraguay who handcrafted some of the most beautiful scarves I had ever seen demonstrated the local talent often found throughout the developing world. Men like Pablo from the Pampas of Argentina who is more resourceful than MacGyver taught me that my “insight” wasn’t always needed. Or Dan, a friend in Mukono, Uganda who taught me that listening, planning, and mutual respect must come before blanket solutions are forced to cross cultural lines.
Studying global economics and business during the school year only confirmed my doubts. After seeing the talent and potential in existence in the developing world and the clear evidence that what is needed most are not donations but JOBS and access to EDUCATION, my skepticism of the BOGO model only grew stronger:
Does this model address poverty or the effects of poverty?
Does the BOGO model undermine local markets where goods are distributed?
Is this not a band-aid solution to a much greater problem?
When donations wear out, does the same problem not reappear?
How, then does the BOGO model not create a system of dependency?
Over the next few years, I would discover that my doubts were not unique:
...and many more.
Needless to say, I eventually decided not to buy my fifth pair of TOMS Shoes. I also started thinking twice about the charities I supported and the way I wanted to shape my desired career in economic development. I started reading anything and everything that talked about the importance of empowerment and sustainability in development. I learned from people like William Easterly, Paul Collier, Jacqueline Novagratz, C.K. Prahalad, and others. I was eventually introduced to microfinance, and upon graduation decided to work for a year with Sinergia, a microfinance organization affiliated with Peru Mission in Trujillo, Peru.
Some of my responsibilities, including teaching business training classes, kept me in and out of the homes of impoverished women who were striving to grow their micro businesses. Through my experience, I fortuitously met a large group of shoemakers who had incredible talent yet who struggled to make ends meet due to the many constraints often found in the developing world. They all lacked variables such as capital, a formalized business, lucrative markets, and practical knowledge necessary to participate in the global market. Yet the talent was evident, and their craftsmanship was like nothing I had ever seen before.
Before long, TOMS was back on my mind as I began to develop plans to start a social business with a focus on the developing world. TOMS provided two things for me: inspiration and motivation. I was inspired by the success TOMS had achieved in the United States. Because of the brand, I knew that market space had been created and that millions of consumers in the U.S. were ready and willing to accept a new socially conscious brand.
More importantly, however, the TOMS model became a motivation for me for two distinct reasons. One reason is the way that the shoes are produced, and the second reason regards the BOGO model vs. empowerment. To my knowledge, TOMS shoes are mass produced in China and Ethiopia. Our shoes differ in that each pair is a unique piece of art. They are not mass-produced. Instead, they are handcrafted leather shoes pridefully made with a level of quality that stacks up with top name designer brands. We do not believe that conscious consumers should have to sacrifice style, quality, price, or comfort to make responsible decisions with their money. Therefore, our product is just as important as our cause.
In addition, the BOGO model that TOMS employs served as a motivation for me not because I supported it but because I wanted people to recognize that donations were not the solution to material poverty. A better solution is empowerment and a focus on addressing poverty at its roots. Therefore, our hope with Nisolo is to offer consumers a chance to understand the very concept of empowerment and what it looks like.
We want traditional mindsets about poverty and service to be challenged. We want people to recognize the remarkable talent that exists in the developing world and help showcase that talent to consumers. We want the average consumer to begin to recognize the true needs in the developing world. We hope that mission work, aid work, volunteer projects, and socially conscious brands will all begin to take a step back and evaluate their efforts. Above all, we want everyone, including TOMS, to be concerned with addressing the causes of material poverty (joblessness, lack of quality education, poor health etc.) rather than the effects of material poverty, namely, shoelessness.
By ensuring that the production of our goods provides needed jobs and supports local economies, we hope to exemplify empowerment in the developing world. In order to do so, we need your help. We hope that you will keep us accountable, offering your suggestions, ideas, and critiques. We hope that you will help us teach consumers in developed world about the importance of consuming consciously. We hope that you will join us, and wear change.
Thankfully, we are not the only ones trying to employ measures to promote empowerment through our business model. In fact, we are one of many brands that you should get to know. If you haven’t heard of these, take a look:
To learn more about empowerment and Nisolo, feel free to check out a recent public lecture I gave on the topic: http://www.viddler.com/v/756b71a4
For more information, you can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for listening.