Buy one-give one, by Brenna Smith

“The Wonderbag was developed to ease the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the current global circumstances. Wonderbag is a simple catalyst for global change.”

I had just opened my email from Lori Carlson, the wonderfully candid president of PLF, expecting a response to the brochure design that I sent her. Instead, I saw a link to the Wonderbag (a bag that doubles as a slow-cooker) website. In between all of our email exchanges about projects, events, meetings, and deadlines, we were discussing the types of interventions that different people (NGOs, donors, missionaries, celebrities, etc.) bring to “problematic” situations (“developing” countries, poverty, famine, child exploitation, etc.), and the unpredictable ripple effects that these development interventions can cause.

So, as a response to our previous email thread about these potentially unintended effects of intervention in Cambodia, Lori sent me the link to the Wonderbag website and posed the question: “While we’re on the subject of good ideas gone bad, what is your opinion of the ‘buy one give one’ model?”

As I tried to gather my thoughts to respond to Lori’s query in an honest and thoughtful way, I glanced through the Wonderbag website. It explained the company’s mission to give one Wonderbag to a person in poverty for each one purchased by an “everyday consumer,” (ostensibly not one living in poverty). Hence the “buy one, give one” model. I reread the claim that this is intended to be a catalyst for global change and that will ease, what Wonderbag interprets to be, the world’s current “social, economic, and environmental impacts.” The simplicity in Wonderbag’s claim to provide an easily accessible solution for world poverty creates a detachment between consumers and the lives of the “helpless” people they are aiming to “help.” The difficult and complex reality that Wonderbag neglects to recognize is that there is no simple answer to end poverty, as poverty is a complex issue with many contributors.

I believe that the “buy one, give one” method is a raging success as a business and marketing model; NOT a development model. Having thought about it some more, I detest the “buy one, give one” model because it breeds the idea of what Paulo Freire would describe as “false generosity,” and it could be considered another way to objectify people and their lives. By this I mean it simplifies the reality of suffering by isolating the conditions that cause the suffering, rather than specifically targeting the societal structures that create these complex social, political, and economic conditions. I would argue, in fact, that it may also undermine and cripple “developing” economies by flooding the local markets with free products with which local entrepreneurs cannot compete.

Further, it allows individuals to continuously and recklessly CONSUME without guilt because there is a “justification” that their purchase will “help some poor kid” living in poverty on the other side of the globe. It provides these consumers with the validity to feel good about their purchase and their “donation” and “contribution” to all the social problems they think exist around the world.

To put my critique more succinctly, I would argue that the “buy one, give one” business and marketing models do nothing to actually solve the real social, environmental, economic and political conditions that produce great social inequality throughout the world. They simply define these problems to better fit into a consumption lifestyle, and allow people to continue contributing to their destructive involvement in parts of the world from which they detach themselves.

Each day that I spend in Cambodia I realize how much time and thought must go into the process of creating social change. And of equal importance, being reflexive about the ways we (and I am defining “we” as consumers in the global economy), are complicit in creating conditions of mass injustice in spaces all over the world, including Cambodia. The way we come to understand the world matters, the lenses we use to make sense of what we see also matter greatly. All of this is linked to how we come to understand both “intention” and social intervention. My guess is that the inventors of the “buy one give one” model still have some thinking to do.


5 Responses to “Buy one-give one, by Brenna Smith”

  1. 1 Josh Foltz
    July 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

    How do you feel about what the shoe company TOMS does? when you buy a pair of their shoes they give a pair to a person in need. Doesn’t this use the same concept of “the buy one, give one” concept?

    • 2 Brenna Smith
      July 22, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      Toms is the company that made the “buy one give one” business model popular, and my blog post speaks directly to them as well. Companies are using this model everywhere now. Toms has expanded to different ventures now, including the donation of glasses from their new eyewear line. But are they training local optometrists to run an eye care clinic in these “needy” villages so that all the “needy” people they donate glasses to can have routine eye exams and get their glasses fixed? This is a this a profitable business model, not a sustainable social impact project. Some would argue that Toms helps these “people in need” by giving them shoes to walk in and glasses to read with… but why donate shoes and glasses to children that cannot read or attend school because they spend their entire day foraging for food in order to live? Until “people in need” have their basic physiological needs met (food, air, water, sleep, homeostasis, etc), donations of shoes, glasses, and “Wonderbags” are a futile attempt at the creation of social change.

  2. July 22, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    “Each day that I spend in Cambodia I realize how much time and thought must go into the process of creating social change. ”

    Actually, it’s not that difficult and is often over thought.

    People need a safe and supportive space in which to create social change for themselves. Those of us who are imagining we are “helping” usually just need to shut up and get focused on helping to create that space. Allow people to make mistakes. Let every victory belong to them and them alone. “Things” should be brought into the space when they are requested. And only when a plan has been worked out by the beneficiaries about how to use “those things” to further “the plan for change” that was conceived by them.

    Things don’t need to be given because someone in NYC decided someone else in a faraway land needs it. Let them go live that persons’ life and then decide what is needed.

    Why do we presume to know what people in faraway lands need?

    The “buy one, give one” people don’t go into villages and ask the people there what the top three problems are and find out that on of them is a lack of shoes. Or stoves. If Tom’s shoes or Wonderbag, or whoever else wanted to use their funds to “help” they would be creating space for entrepreneurial ventures so that communities could make/sell/buy their own damn shoes and stoves.

    But they don’t give a crap about supporting change; what they want is to SELL STUFF and they are using a potent mix of gross consumerism and the resultant guilt to get that job done. And it’s working! Look at all the hipsters running around Manhattan during “A Day without Shoes” posting their dirty feet on FB and somehow imagining that they have connected with the struggle of any one of the people you have met in Cambodia. It turns my stomach; all of those posts of dirty feet help to sell more shoes, it does not help anyone here. At all.

    People don’t need shoes. People don’t need better stoves. People don’t need any of the things being sent over here. People need the wherewithal to produce and then procure those things for themselves when and if they want to, and our focus needs to be on what we can do to equalize that privilege.

    End Rant >>

  3. 4 Brenna Smith
    July 22, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Lori your ranting is superb & sums up everything I couldn’t fit into my 500 words or less blog. Plus a lot more. Your insight is most appreciated 🙂

  4. July 25, 2014 at 6:18 am

    brenna – thank you for posting this! after reading your post and the comments, here are my thoughts and opinions about this issue at hand.

    tom’s shoes DID come out with a marketplace – where they supposedly let artisans around the world sell their wearables through tom’s to make it more accessible to online consumers:

    i came across it right after it launched but wasn’t very excited about it – personally, i’m more into the thought of microlending, if i’m going to try doing any ‘good’ from the comfort of my couch. lending money to a person that needs supplies to carry out a craft and sell their end product in their own country is, so far, a better way to ‘give’ remotely in my opinion, and the best solution i can think of right now (as a side note, i’d love any opinions on that from people that see the effects of microlending in their communities). clearly, someone at toms saw they should be doing more and executed it with their marketplace online shop, but i’m not exactly sure how it has panned out- is it really helping, or are they taking advantage of artists in these countries by making a faux-etsy online shop full of beautiful items that are cheap and may not actually give the artist any significant financial gains from sales? not sure. i haven’t invested time into researching it, since i spend more time looking into the goods and bads of microlending.

    but, about the main issue – of people thinking they’re giving/helping when they’re not and sometimes making the situation worse:

    the GOOD side of people walking around barefoot, trying to buy shoes knowing ‘one will be given to someone in need’, and writing things like “#bringbackourgirls” across our hands and posting pics on instagram is that they’re trying. our generation is so social that we care more about social causes than major political issues in our country. at least the CARE is there – before all of the .com / bank / housing bubbles burst in the 2000’s sending the US into a recession, were consumers in the 90’s even thinking about buying a ton of useless stuff hoping, deep down, they were doing some good? was the consumerism done with any conscience?

    the BAD is that companies and entrepreneurs profit off of our generation’s good intentions AND short term solutions. it’s also bad that people are satisfied with buying a pair of tom’s and thinking that’s good enough and calling it a day. we’re idealistic without knowing how to actually affect positive change. it’s also good and bad that consuming with a conscience is trendy these days, which leads to massive hashtag campaigns with no real end result but tons of awareness being pumped out into the ether. not every person that tries to be a social activist can actually travel, actively advocate, or (for the #bringbackourgirls example) physically go to nigeria to search for the missing schoolgirls, but at least they’re using their social networks to get the word out about it. maybe that’ll eventually reach out to and inspire someone that has the ability travel or help out in some significant way.

    all of this is frustrating, but what exactly can we do? i’m struggling with this myself – how can we (the laypeople – not entrepreneurs, because they should know better!) help, besides doing massive amounts of research to find the positives and negatives on businesses/organizations/foundations before we try to contribute? maybe there should be a site besides charity navigator (and the like) that has a better way of conducting underground research to help people find ways to consciously consume or help them pick out where to donate or lend money to. does that already exist? believe you me brenna, i’ve seen the power of advertising and how companies like toms has the ability to cover up their sweatshops and negative press, and i really want to change all of the messed up things about marketing.

    just my two cents, as i journey along trying to figure out how to help remotely 🙂

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