Warby Parker: Social Enterprise, Improved

The most well-known form of social enterprise is “Buy One, Give One.”  Warby Parker improves this model by using a market approach, rather than a charity approach.

Buy One, Help One


Source: Warby Parker

Warby Parker is known for its stylish and affordable glasses, personalised customer service, and engagement with its younger, digitally active market.  And, of course, there’s its social mission: A “buy one, give one” (BOGO) model that has become a major selling point for companies trying to reach a more socially conscious consumer market.  But Warby Parker have improved the model.

On the surface, Warby’s “buy a pair, give a pair” approach sounds like any other BOGO model: For each pair of glasses sold, it donates one (plus other funds) to not-for-profits like Vision Spring.  However, “buy a pair, give a pair” doesn’t tell the whole story.  Instead of simply giving glasses away, Warby’s donations to Vision Spring enable the organisation to train and supply individual entrepreneurs to sell glasses at affordable prices in low-income countries.  Unlike TOMS Shoes, whose donations have been criticised for undercutting local businesses and perpetuating a culture of dependency, Warby catalyses economic development and productivity by empowering micro-entrepreneurs and improving access to an often-overlooked public health need.

(This post is based on an article in Next Billion.)

Flow-On Effects

The question of how to provide aid – how to help those less fortunate than ourselves, is not simple to answer and is one which I have barely begun to think about.  Here’s how Warby Parker explain it.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why sell the glasses? Why not just donate them?”

Glad you asked.

It’s a sticky fact of life that kind-hearted gestures can have unintended consequences. Donating is often a temporary solution, not a lasting one. It can contribute to a culture of dependency. It is rarely sustainable.

Instead of donating, our partners train men and women to sell glasses for ultra-affordable prices, which allows them to earn a living. More important, it forces our partners to offer glasses that people actually want to buy: glasses that fit with local styles, look good, work well, and make the wearer feel incredible.

Because everyone wants to feel incredible.

I have seen the potential for economic empowerment through my work with Grow Movement.  Not only do the entrepreneurs that we work with have the opportunity to build a business that creates a sustainable income for them, but there are flow-on effects as that income supports the entrepreneur’s family and improves their community.

It has long been my view that companies will only succeed long-term in doing good if they work with, rather than against, market forces.  So I like the way Warby Parker are going about their social mission.

What concerns do you have about social business models?  What interesting approaches have you seen that alleviate some of these concerns?

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