Social Change for Free Is a Difficult Price Point to Undersell

Not everything that you, me or someone else dreams up as a solution to a pressing social problem is necessarily a brilliant social change innovation.

Perhaps the classic example is the castoffs that Americans donate and which are sent overseas.  Did you know Americans donate 2.5 billion pounds of old clothes annually to charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army – 80% of which ends up given away in Africa?

Free clothes for the poorly-clothed seems like a win-win.  You clean out your garage or attic by donating your belongings to a charity.  The needy get your stuff; the unneedy get a tax break.

Think again.

Imported secondhand clothes meddle in local economies.  Domestic textile and apparel manufacturers can’t complete when cheap goods flood local markets.  Free is a difficult price point to undersell.

On a practical level, transporting your unwanted stuff overseas to a rural village is enormously inefficient and costly.  “World Vision…spends 58 cents per shirt on shipping, warehousing, and distributing them…[which is] well within the range of what a secondhand shirt costs in a developing country…..Want to really help a Zambian?  Give him a shirt made in Zambia.”

On the day I haul my old suits to the curb, am also I inclined to curb my cash donations?  Disturbingly, one study suggests that consumers who buy cause-linked products (donate merchandise too?) may well feel they have done their thing.

Which brings to mind the buy-one, give-one social finance model popularized by TOMS Shoes.  “With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need.”

TOMS model is not without its critics and controversy.  To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “I had a perfectly effective economic development idea, but this wasn’t it.”  For a smartly sympathetic critique, read “Letter to the Founder of TOMS.”

An intelligent way to mobilize foot soldiers against poverty?  Will the newly well-heeled stay committed global activists or merely guilt-free consumers?

As the poetic voice in who is i? wonders, “I have lots of good ideas and probably some crappy ones too.  I’m just not sure which are which.”  We can and must learn to acknowledge — indeed respect — the sincerely committed social innovator without unthoughtfully endorsing every social innovation.

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About Jonathan C. Lewis

Host/Founder, iOnPoverty

Posted on April 3, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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