Poverty as a Unique Selling Point

The world isn’t that much better since Toms started the One-for-One business model in 2006.

Photo by author

Last week I ran into a Starbucks to get an iced soy latte. I was sort of hungry but didn’t want to eat anything too heavy and ruin my appetite for dinner. At the cash register was a delicious-looking bar with marketing that caught my eye.

“This Saves Lives,” stood out like a shiny object. It looked almost identical to its sister snack, KIND Bar. But it emoted something different than a KIND bar. I don’t just want to be kind, I want to save lives! I grabbed the bar and bought it. I needed to examine further exactly how — and whose — lives this bar was saving. I wanted to learn more about the company that had the audacity to say it was saving lives.

These companies are like the woke-white dude you meet at the bar at 2 am. They marched and protested for #BLM with their girlfriends and they’re all about women’s rights. Heck, they even love AOC, but probably couldn’t tell you what her role in the US government actually is. They’re shiny and sexy on the outside, luring you in to think they actually give a fuck about issues that don’t impact them. But in reality these dudes — err companies — are just here to promote their image and their accessible, world-changing products.

After doing some minimal research, I discovered that This Saves Lives adopted the One-For-One model, similar to Warby Parker and other companies who donate one thing after another thing is purchased. This Saves Lives was actually founded by a group of actors who all share the same value of ending child hunger. I think it’s fair to say that every decent person probably shares that value.

The one-for-one model was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie, the CEO, and founder of Toms. And while many companies since have founded companies with similar models, the world isn’t actually that much better than it was in 2006. So why are companies still claiming they’re saving the world and lives?

Because it sells.

The One-For-One Model

In its time, the one-for-one model was revolutionary. Toms became one of the first purpose-driven fashion companies on the market. The model was easy for consumers to understand: buy a shoe, donate a shoe to someone in need. It was a noble idea, it helped barefoot kids have shoes. Lovely. And This Saves Lives is identical to that model. Buy this granola bar and food will be donated to someone in need. Again, noble.

Image from thissaveslives.com

Sexy branding alone won’t save the world. But companies do evolve. With more consumers wanting to buy products from “purpose-driven,” companies like Toms and This Saves Lives, the companies amass more power as their revenue increases. And this power has companies believe they could make a greater impact than government and nonprofits combined.

What’s So Wrong with Ending Hunger?

Nothing is wrong with ending hunger. The problem is that one-for-one companies are allowed to use saving lives as a marketing slogan while simultaneously opting out of any responsibility for larger systemic problems they may actually be contributing to.

For example, This Saves Lives is noble because they’re donating food to people in other countries who need it. Right? But what if they lobbied for more aid (i.e. higher taxes) to go to these countries instead? What if they used their power as a private sector company to actually make systemic changes in the world? A big reason why they don’t: because it doesn’t sell.

At the end of the day, a private corporation or business has a responsibility to earn revenue. Whether it’s a Benefit Corporation (also known as B Corp) or not. Unlike governments, their business models have to include supply and demand. The one-for-one model uses poverty as a unique selling point. Like I mentioned previously nearly everyone has a combined value of ending child hunger. So customers want to satisfy their hunger, knowing they’re also helping someone else not starve.

Image from shopify.com

But if hunger and malnutrition were to actually be eradicated, their model would no longer be as appealing. They’d just be a flashy, expensive granola bar. As long as there are people suffering, there are companies that can use “solutions” as a unique value proposition, all while never actually solving the problem.

And as Spiderman’s uncle famously said; with great power comes great responsibility. Often, companies like This Saves Lives take on the power to change the world, unified under one set value of ending hunger. But the problem is, companies — and the private sector as a whole — are not meant to save the world. Their structures are not meant to invest in systemic changes or infrastructure, or anything other than profit. Civic and social investments typically don’t have a monetary return. Instead, their return is in livelihoods and opportunity for citizens.

So…what do we do?

The one-for-one model is an easy-to-understand giving strategy, but it isn’t changing the world as its marketing would claim. Donating goods that are needed around the world isn’t a bad thing. The harm is when it’s marketed as the thing to change the world.

Ending severe acute malnutrition in children in developing countries is going to take a lot more than donating some food packets to people. It’s going to take coordinated efforts from the private, public, and nonprofits sectors. Feeding someone doesn’t end the hunger problem. It is a bandaid that keeps the problem large and unsustainable.

Professing that it is on a mission to end hunger isn’t actually going to end hunger. But it will drive people to buy the sticky snack at Starbucks. And as long as we do that without questioning whether or not it’s actually saving lives, the world will continue on its destructive path of putting profit over people.

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Mama + marketing maven. Follow for stories on ethics, social justice, and parenting. Subscribe to my newsletter: mindymorganavitia.com/insights

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