Tag Archives: whole foods

Western Union vs. American Apparel

This isn’t your typical ill-fitting tee shirt. It’s American Apparel. 

As an owner of two American Apparel tees, I can affirm these shirts fit well. We know they fashion comfortable garb, but we also know their clothes are “crafted with pride in the USA.”

Out of the limelight, a financial services company lurks in mystery. We see Western Union signs everywhere, but I’m guessing like me, you’ve never been a customer. Earlier this year, I pitched TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods in a corporate do-gooder analysis. Today’s matchup? American Apparel vs. Western Union.

American Apparel

Activists flock to American Apparel (AA) products, drawn to their fashion-forward designs and ethical business practices. AA  lauds how they “pioneer industry standards of social and environmental responsibility in the workplace.” They pay their factory workers well and give back to Los Angeles, their home city. They construct quality products.

If that was the whole story, I would hail their greatness. But it’s not. They do some things well, but their problems plunge deeper than even the deepest of their v-neck man tees.

Frankly, the more I learn about American Apparel, the less I like. As a person of faith, I find AA’s blatant disregard for decency appalling. The New York Times described their marketing as “sexually charged.” AA categorizes it as “provocative.” It’s sadly ironic they are a clothing company because their ads feature very little of it. This edginess appeals to their  customers,  but it isn’t winsome. It’s willfully vulgar. “Controversial as [our marketing] may be, we’ll continue to give our core audience what they crave,” their website flaunts.

Their (lack of) corporate values start at the top. Founder and CEO, Dov Charney is a real class-act. He’s called the “Hugh Hefner of retailing, decorating his stores with covers of Penthouse magazine” and he shamelessly and unapologetically exploits his female employees. Call me a prude, but I think AA cheapens women. From their leadership to their marketing, AA distills the value of women down to their dimensions. And that, to me, flies in the face of good American business and true social responsibility.

Speaking of being American, their worshiped manufacturing process drips with arrogance. I believe in free markets and believe healthy market economies are the “best broken system” to continue to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty globally. AA positions their advertising as if the only way to run an ethical company is to hire American laborers. It’s not. That’s bad economics and it flies in the face of great global companies like Gap and Apple that use global manufacturing facilities to create great jobs in developing countries.

It’s fine for companies to tout their Americanism–and for consumers to buy local–but don’t suggest companies which do otherwise are villains. This protectionist tone incites Americans (both progressives and conservatives, which baffles me on both counts, but that’s another topic) against our global neighbors. Since when is helping provide jobs for poor people in other countries unAmerican (or unChristian, for that matter)?

Western Union

Western Union pops up in the worst places. Their outlets populate seamy strip malls and dimly lit corner stores. I associate these Western Union outlets with pawn shops, money lenders and liquor stores, retailers that victimize on the chronic poverty found in these neighborhoods. While it may have been fair to accuse Western Union of this twenty years ago, it isn’t any longer.

On an evening drive recently, I did a quick stop at Western Union with my friend Clarisse, a Congolese refugee. We pulled up to a gas station and she jumped out. A minute later, she slid back in the car. Transaction complete: She had just sent $50 to her aging mother in Brazzaville, Congo. That $50 was her mother’s only income that week.

Later in the evening, her mom called. The money had arrived. Today, over $200 million will change hands though over one million transactions, just like the $50 Clarisse sent to her mom. Western Union sustains families through these transactions. In Haiti, over half of the national income comes through these transactions–remittances–and has been a lifeblood for millions of struggling families. They’re safely transmitting billions of dollars to and from remote places like Congo, Somalia and Laos. And, they’re doing so with transparency in their pricing.

They have outlets in every country in the entire world. They treat and pay their 7,000 employees well. And, they give generously, granting over $70M to innovative nonprofits that “connect families with economic opportunity,” aligning closely with the heartbeat of Western Union’s core business. These agencies include many top microfinance organizations (before you think I’m biased, they haven’t given to HOPE yet, but hopefully someday!). Western Union understands their unique contribution to the world–safely transmitting money globally between loved ones–and they promote human flourishing through the opportunities they create.

The Verdict

It is a charade to claim American Apparel is a socially conscious company. They quietly erode the worth of women and loudly abhor real American values. Still, Christians line up  to print their graphics on these “ethically manufactured” tees. In contrast, Western Union makes the world a dramatically better place for poor families with very little fanfare. This match-up isn’t even a contest: Western Union scores a first-round knockout.

TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods

TOMS Shoes defines cool. These hip slip-ons  are the garnishment of urban hipsters, but even much-less-cool folks like me love when companies give back. The winning equation for TOMS has been the “buy one get one” approach they pioneered: You buy slick kicks…and poor kids get free shoes. This equation has propelled TOMS to corporate superstar status.

All companies practice and celebrate their do-goodism. There’s even a cumbersome title for it–corporate social responsibility (CSR). Analyzing corporate charity models is one of my hobbies. Today’s doing good battle is between TOMS Shoes, the hipster heavyweight, and Whole Foods Market, the granola momma’s utopia.

VS.

 

 

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TOMS: Lots of good, but some areas that could be tweaked. Please: Don’t chuck your TOMS at me just yet. Hear me out.

The good: They connect their product–shoes–to their charity–shoes for poor kids. Rather than supporting something entirely unrelated, like well-drilling in Africa (leave well-drilling to Aquafina and Dasani), TOMS’ charitable endeavors are a foot-in-shoe fit, you might say, with their business.

Needs Improvement: First, though fabulously intended, I’m in the choir of skeptics about the impact of distributing free shoes to poor kids. In short, giving away free stuff, whether its TOMS Shoes, school supplies, or castaway Super Bowl t-shirts, almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.

Second, their social mission is sold as an add-on to their business. Like many other companies, they slice off a share of revenue and use that to fund charity. Giving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but companies like TOMS celebrate the toppings rather than the sundae itself. They splash a “charity cherry” on top of their business, but often neglect to acknowledge the core contribution they make to society: Providing meaningful jobs and cool shoes to our world.

Whole Foods Market: Though much more nuanced than TOMS, their approach to doing good is “best in class.”

The good: On a recent trip to Whole Foods to buy a bouquet of flowers for Alli, I left deeply impressed with the way their charitable efforts are woven into their core business: Selling healthy, fresh groceries. Rather than highlight their food donations, or the food relief agencies they could financially support, they celebrate the livelihoods they support across the globe and the nutritious goods they provide to their customers. I got this simple flyer with my flower purchase featuring Alfredo, one of the farmers:

Let’s be clear: Whole Foods profits from my purchase. They are not motivated to work with Alfredo solely because they want to help the vulnerable. They work with Alfredo because he grows gorgeous flowers and enables shareholders to earn big returns.

Still, they do business with Alfredo in a redemptive, equitable way, shedding light on the real people–the breeders, bakers and butchers–who produce their groceries. Like Whole Foods, Starbucks shines as a kindred spirit in the way they treat and celebrate their 75,000 coffee farmers.

The verdict: Like TOMS, Whole Foods gives a percentage of their revenue to provide additional support to farmers like Alfredo, but that becomes cursory, their add-on, to the livelihoods they support. Rather than voicing poetic kudos to their corporate tithing, Whole Foods highlights the inherent and more significant value their business brings to our globe. The clear winner? Whole Foods. They do good well.