Matthew Theunissen is a business reporter

Ethics draw notice of millennials

John Elliott with a child from a school in South Africa who has benefited from the buy-one-give-one policy of his company, TOMS. Photo / Supplied
John Elliott with a child from a school in South Africa who has benefited from the buy-one-give-one policy of his company, TOMS. Photo / Supplied

Companies ignore the leanings of ethically-minded millennials at their peril, says the manager of a socially-responsible shoe brand making inroads in New Zealand.

John Elliott, who handles the Australian and New Zealand side of "one-for-one" retailer TOMS, will be the guest speaker at the PwC Herald Talks at SkyCity Theatre on November 16.

For every item TOMS sells, an equivalent item or service is given to a person in need.

It started with shoes and the company has given more than 60 million pairs of footwear to children in some of the poorest parts of the world.

It has also started selling eyewear and with every pair of glasses sold, the company funds a full eye exam. Buying TOMS coffee gets someone fresh water, its bags provide nurse training and supplies for women in childbirth, and its backpacks go towards a bullying prevention programme.

TOMS now sells products in more than 30 NZ stores and Elliott hopes his company's ethos will rub off here.

"Eighty-eight per cent of millennials want to work for a company or buy a brand that has a positive social impact, and that's a significant change in recent years. You can ignore that number if you want to but I'd suggest it's not a very prudent idea."

Elliott said he understood how people could become cynical about big businesses getting behind philanthropic causes, particularly with the advent of "greenwashing" PR campaigns, where organisations spend more on advertising environmentally-friendly initiatives than implementing them. But, he said, people needed to allow businesses to do good in the community.

He gave the example of TOMS teaming up with shopping centre giant Westfield to provide hundreds of children with new shoes, dozens of birthing kits and restore the sight of 44 people.

"I thought, 'That's bloody awesome really'. But I was telling someone and they said, 'Ah well, Westfield's so big they could do more than that'. But, of course, everyone could do more but they won't unless they're encouraged. We've got every right to be questioning but possibly not cynical."

If he had one message to businesses it would be to act now.

"I also think we have an obligation in business not to compromise the quality of the product," he said. "Consumers are savvy enough to make sure that the product is relevant and needed, but they're now looking past the product itself and saying, 'What are you going to do if I buy it?'"

PwC Herald Talks
Conscious Business

Keynote speaker: John Elliott, Australia/NZ TOMS managing director
Where: SkyCity Theatre
Price: $89
Booking: iticket.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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