An Innovative Social Business Model Based on…T-Shirts?


OneTribe social enterprise TShirt
OneTribe social enterprise TShirt

T-shirts have long been used as a mechanism of expression. Your favorite band. Your life stance. An obscure quote. That you’re a brand whore. But beyond that, what good are they?

Sure, you can buy an organic cotton one, or perhaps bamboo, soy, or any of the other options. Great, but still a small and perhaps abstract feeling gesture, when you’re just one person. Made by fair trade labor? A step forward, but it’s still this nebulous idea, a benefit that sounds good but doesn’t have a personally identifiable aspect to it.

OneTribe has arrived on the scene, with quite a different offer.

Buy a shirt, and 50% of the cost goes to a cause. But, taking it beyond just cash going to a nice sounding organization, they do two things: Tell you exactly what 1 shirt does, and give you a choice which organization you’ll benefit by which shirt you choose. Somehow, it’s like dual flush toilets giving you a specific choice of how much water you use. By both knowing precisely what benefit your shirt will have and being empowered to intentionally choose what that will be, this is an incredibly real experience in a frequently fake world.

What are some of the benefits?

  • Buy a Global Village of Beijing shirt, and 8 reusable bags go to people in environmentally challenged China.
  • Proceeds from a Grassroot Soccer shirt, “equips one child in Africa with the knowledge, skills, & support to live HIV free”
  • A Peace Jam shirt will help a youth become a more capable shifter of their and the world’s environment by attending a global youth leadership conference with a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
  • And the most concrete one of them all: One shirt will provides a person in the developing world access to clean drinking water for life.

All this, while having all the other green cred down solid, including use of organic cotton and soy for the shirts, with citrus and soy based screen printing. In an additional measure I’ve never seen before, they use recycled cereal boxes to ship them to you!

But there’s something more here to look at, in terms of business model:

This is not a shirt company. They are a project of Onetribe Creative, a branding and design firm in Fort Collins, Colorado. In creating a social enterprise, they both create another stream of income, less dependent on securing clients, and a mechanism to both give credibility to their claim of being in support of values based businesses, in the process drawing more to them as clients. That they ask the public how they can do even better further confirms their commitment to doing this right.

Now for the question that may make or break the viability of such an effort: The cost.

It’s $46. Half of that is tax deductible. Will that turn away some people? Certainly. Does a well made, designer shirt cost that much and more, giving you not much more than clothes on your back and a bit of cache? Definitely. In a time where people are seeking more meaning in their lives, their purchases,  Onetribe certainly seems to be on to something here.

Readers: What other innovative social venture models have you seen out there? How else can causes and consumers effectively and interestingly come together? Let’s talk about it, below.

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media. Who he has and wants to work with includes consumer, media, clean tech, NGOs, social ventures, and museums.

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing. || ==> For more, see

4 responses

  1. I find Aravind’s use of the Freemium Business Model to enable FREE eye surgery for the poor in India very interesting.

    There are an estimated 12 million blind people in India with most cases arising from treatable or preventable causes such as cataracts. In a developing country with limited resources government alone cannot meet health needs of all the poor and the challenges are to make the service accessible, affordable and with high quality.

    Aravind is the world’s biggest eye-hospital chain, based in India founded in 1976. Its core principle is that the hospital must provide services to the rich and poor alike, yet be financially self-supporting. It treats over 1.7 million patients each year, two-thirds of them for free.

    There are separate facilities for paying and non-paying patients and it is up to the patient to choose where to get the care. The fee based service can include fancy meals or air-conditioned rooms and the paying customers pay well above costs to cover the costs for subsidized and free services. The free or subsidized services are made very cost efficient by proving only the basic facilities that enact a process of social self-selection and create a hurdle for those who can afford to pay to demand free treatment.

    To maintain the quality of the care, the same doctors rotate to deal with both paying and non-paying patients.

    High volumes
    Aravind uses community partners and eye camps to access the poor, something that creates a huge demand for its services. Aravind’s business model is based on the high volumes generated and a surgeon in Aravind performs more than 2000 cataract surgeries a year which is 5 times the number performed by an average Indian ophthalmologist. The large number of performed surgeries creates an expertise and reputation which has lead to Aravind becoming a training center for ophthalmic professionals and trainees.

    Aravind is not only a eye-hospital but also
    • a social organization committed to the goal of elimination of needless blindness
    • an international training centre for ophthalmic professionals and trainees
    • an institute for research that contributes to the development of eye care
    • an institute to train health-related and managerial personnel in the development and implementation of efficient and sustainable eye care programs
    • a manufacturer of ophthalmic products available at low costs

    “Aravind’s model does not just depend on pricing, scale, technology or process, but on a clever combination of all of them” The Economist, April 16th 2009

    The Business Model Database

  2. I love ideas like this, and I especially love that One Tribe give such specific examples of where the money goes, with the exception of the HIV charity: “equips one child in Africa with the knowledge, skills, & support to live HIV free.” I assume that means an education effort, but I’d like to see some condoms thrown in there too!

  3. @Anders – wow, Aravind sounds amazing! Great to hear they make such an effort to get every seen that needs to be.

    @Jen – No doubt! And having the education/awareness of the importance of condoms in the first place is a crucial step before.

  4. Pingback: One Tribe T-shirts an innovative social business model »

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