A Response to VOX article, "Buying TOMS is a terrible way to help poor people."
Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes
Periods can be a real drag. For some much more than others. And for some, the term “drag” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Knowing how difficult managing menstrual hygiene can be—whether you’re a schoolgirl in rural Uganda or you’re Paris Hilton (maybe she gets bad cramps???)—THINX wants to make periods easier for everyone. Not only do our products eliminate leaks and stains so you can rock your white pants worry-free, but we have a giveback built right in to our business model meant to help alleviate the need for menstrual hygiene products in Uganda. Like many developing countries (and even many “industrialized” countries, ahem, United States?), Uganda has a history of lacking sufficient menstrual hygiene resources for girls and women in poverty. When the founders of THINX learned of the connection between this lack of resources and a gap in the school attendance of young girls, they knew THINX should be involved in changing this trend.
Sort of on that note, an article criticizing the TOMS giveback model was recently written for Vox.com by writer Amanda Taub. The article makes claims that TOMS is inefficient, ineffective, and exploitative of the Western consumer’s desire to help far-off poor people in the least confrontational way possible—by buying an accessory for themselves. This criticism is so spot-on that the THINX team was cheering right along with Taub; until of course we got about halfway through the piece and saw our name, labeled as “imitators” of the TOMS giveback model. Whaaa?? But Amanda, we were getting along so well!
First of all, Taub complains of “spam” (ouch) from THINX in her inbox, telling her about how “every time someone purchases [our] ‘period-proof’ panties, THINX donates menstrual pads to girls in Uganda.” Yeah... yikes. We don’t actually do that, nor do we claim to do that. But as we read along, we found that this was not the only thing you misunderstood about our company, Amanda. So, because we like you and we’re sure there are other people out there who are also confused about our company, we really would like to clarify for you the truth about THINX’s giveback. Because, as you’ll see, it’s actually pretty far-removed from the TOMS model.
Now to address the points made about THINX in your almost-awesome article:
First, and most importantly, we are not “imitators” of the TOMS model as you say. In fact, when the idea for a giveback portion of our company was conceived, we consciously looked at the TOMS model, saw it to be an inefficient, ineffective, and exploitative program (as you have), and chose to do something different. Unlike TOMS, ours is not a buy-one-give-one approach: we do not donate menstrual pads to schoolgirls in Uganda as you have stated; we do not fly little planes overhead, showering eager children with maxi-pads and tampons; we don’t go to Uganda and throw supplies at children and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Imagine if a tampon landed in someone’s eye??? That would just be dangerous. Instead, we put some funds from sales into a grassroots organization in Kampala—one with a mission of empowerment, sustainability, and employment. This organization is called AFRIpads, and it is the organization that I wish you would have researched before writing your article.
Taken directly from their website, the organization is as follows: “AFRIpads Ltd. is a social business in Uganda that manufactures and sells cost-effective cloth sanitary pads. Our mission is to empower women and girls through business, innovation and opportunity.” Their primary work is actually with grown women in Uganda who are looking for employment opportunities and financial independence. AFRIpads employs (mostly) women to manufacture reusable sanitary cloths that are later sold to schoolgirls in surrounding areas. This employment is a valuable resource that provides local women with entrepreneurial skills and leads to economic empowerment. Not to mention that the reusable products help schoolgirls maintain their education while on their periods instead of missing an entire week each month, which is what a staggering amount of girls have to do as of now. Our giveback is therefore less of a “charity” and more of an empowerment structure. It actually states on the AFRIpads website that, “rather than establishing a charity, the founders decided to take a new approach to addressing development problems, and in late 2009 AFRIpads Ltd. was incorporated as a social business. By blending the power of business with the social objectives of charity, AFRIpads is utilizing the power of the market to provide the best and most sustainable menstrual product solution.”
While a lot of what you have said about THINX is false, there are two points made that are absolutely true: first, you explain that the problems faced by people in poverty around the world are complex, and often times, simply providing people with a product will not make any significant impact on their well-being. There is indeed a dangerous tendency of Western cultures to reduce the entire developing world to images of starving children, dirty pools of water, or barren deserts; while poverty is actually an issue with myriad causes and effects. And the people affected by it are just as complex and human as the rest of us, and can be found in developing and industrialized countries alike. But at THINX, we believe in the “Girl Effect.” This is the theory that if we elevate girls and women around the world to positions of power and independence—if we educate, encourage, and value them—then many of the world’s ills (climate change, global poverty, starvation, etc.) will be greatly reduced. That’s why we chose an organization with a longer-term goal that does more than dole out sanitary napkins without being asked. Additionally, AFRIpads acknowledges that the lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene is just one of the key factors holding back attendance rates of girls in the developing world, and addressing that need is one of the ways we can begin to alleviate the gender attendance gap and contribute to the “Girl Effect.”
Second, you make the valid point that people in poverty would benefit more from straight cash than anything else. That way, they can make their own decisions about what they need most (instead of some far-removed Western bro outfitted with funky, artisan shoes who may never really know what someone on the other side of the world needs). And we agree with you. That’s why AFRIpads is so cool—employing women in their own communities is virtually like putting cash in their pockets, with the added bonuses of providing opportunities for career growth, learning useful entrepreneurial skills, and uplifting local economies.
So, aside from how our names are capitalized and them both beginning with the letter “T,” it is clear that THINX and TOMS are very, veeeerrryyyy different. While we think TOMS is a cool idea, and acknowledge that there's no doubt Blake and his crew were straight up pioneers in the land of social entrepreneurship, we specifically wanted to try a different giveback approach, and AFRIpads has proven to be a really awesome choice.
At the end of it all, we would genuinely like to thank you for writing an article criticizing retail givebacks and Western charity. It’s true that colonialism is somewhat bred into Westerners (particularly among white people, which is known by some as “White Saviorism.” Lol). And it’s true that there is an ugly instinct within many of us to generalize all of the world’s poor into one unsightly lump of helpless, sad, brown people in need of our enlightened Western assistance to achieve health and happiness. But it’s also important to us at THINX that you to see how we’ve consciously tried to veer away from that pattern. An emphasis on opening doors for women in the developing world to make their own health and happiness is a more sustainable and fair giveback technique than handouts. We recognize that whether from rags or riches, women are smart enough and strong enough to lift themselves out of hard times. But until greener pastures are reached, we hope that there will continue to be socially conscious companies on the sidelines, offering encouragement and support wherever we can.
|Emma Glassman-Hughes was raised on the beaches of San Diego and educated in the city of Boston. She is a dedicated foodie, cat enthusiast, political communications student at Emerson College, and intern for THINX. She finds inspiration in all things feminism- or Beyoncé-related, and has a deep appreciation for carbs and good music, preferably when combined.|