Montreal-born Dov Charney, the controversial founder of casual clothing retailer American Apparel Inc., has been ousted as chairman …
You buy a shoe from Toms, they give a shoe for charity. That’s a flawed, morally obtuse business model if you’ve ever heard one, right?
Actually, no — you probably think pretty highly of Toms if you think of them at all. And judging by the number of people in LA and New York City that I’ve seen sporting the distinctive footwear, many of us hold them in perfectly high esteem. The prevailing view I’ve heard is there’s something particularly callous about criticizing the brand. What have you done lately, critic, to start a business, strengthen a brand, or empower a social mission?
Nowadays, that kind of pointed counter-criticism is very effective at shutting down conversations about how to improve things. At Fast Company’s Co.Exist, however, Cheryl Davenport proceeds undeterred. She challenges Toms to face up to “two existential flaws” with the power to “undo the company’s social impact and business success” — first, the failure of its buy-one-give-one model to “actually solve a social problem;” second, the lack of “a stronger, more differentiated and less replicable product offering,” which exposes the brand to the fatal impact of fickle consumer tastes.
Let’s start with the second critique first. Toms may well offer a fairly narrow range of products with a highly specific look. (I myself have been tempted to dub it ‘peasant chic’.) But a closer look at why Toms’ multicolored potato-shaped shoes have done so well in the first place as a fashion choice should put Toms at ease.
Take this interpretation for a test drive: Toms satisfy a powerfully consistent desire among consumers concerned with casually signaling personal authenticity through footwear.
Musicians, hipsters, skateboarders, hippies, college students — rather than holding up their intended displays of authenticity up to critical scrutiny, it ought to be enough to observe that they have embraced for decades shoe brands with virtually unchanged basic styles, like Chuck Taylors and Vans. These venerable brands have weathered their share of knockoffs; why not Toms? Indeed, Toms’ brand ownership of charitable shoe donations makes it even harder to knock them off with success. (Buying a fake Louis Vuitton bag isn’t an act of moral fakery.) Are Toms appealing precisely because they’re not trying to look cutting-edge or sophisticated — charitable meaning aside? If so, they’re already pre-insulated against suddenly losing favor.
Davenport‘s first critique is the one with more bite. I like the attitude behind giving a company a brand challenge instead of brand criticism. It’s refreshing to think that consumers can — and should! — help inspire companies they appreciate to fulfill the promise of their mission more authentically and more effectively. On the other hand, consumers and commentators don’t own that promise, and they aren’t entitled to redefine that mission. Davenport makes a small but important mistake when she presumes that Toms is supposed to be solving a social problem. She quickly concludes that, because it should be but isn’t, Toms is “designed to make western consumers feel good.”
This is a slur in a manner similar to labeling a set of doctrines you don’t like an ideology. No product is designed to make its consumers feel bad, of course. What Davenport wants to say is that a product shouldn’t make its consumers feel good about addressing a social problem without taking concrete steps to ensure that it — and they — are actually helping cure the problem. From the standpoint of personal empowerment, that’s an admirable suggestion, because it gets us thinking about how Toms could actually strengthen their business model by moving away from charity and toward scalable manufacturing and production practices that better monetize Toms by pulling former ‘charity cases’ into an actual productive economic relationship with Toms and with one another.
However, there’s a detail here that bears an emphasis Davenport neglects. The problem with business charity — the now-ubiquitous practice of giving away corporate dollars to various favored organizations and causes — isn’t primarily a problem with charity as such. It’s that the virtues of charity don’t translate very well from a person-to-person practice to an institution-to-group practice. ‘Charity aggregators’ can filter out the soul of charity, which is found in the act of personally, directly, and physically giving gratuitous aid or comfort to another human being. Business leaders are better off thinking creatively about how to empower people by empowering their own businesses.
Note: this is much different from thinking about how people can be empowered as a consequence of how you’re currently empowering your business. That might also be a worthy exercise, but it’s less powerful. Thinking about the future success of your business as a tool to increase human flourishing is consonant with the basic rules of the free market — and it’s always in fashion.
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