What Corporate Responsibility Means to Warby Parker in 2020

"There's nothing like a global pandemic to make us realize we have bigger goals here," said co-CEO David Gilboa.
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· 8 min read

Warby Parker is as well known for its “buy a pair, give a pair” donation program as its wire-frame glasses. But the charitable pillar of Warby Parker’s business faced roadblocks when the pandemic struck: Glasses weren’t the highest priority for the communities it sent donations to, and other services Warby Parker oversaw, like eye exams, posed a social distancing danger.

So Warby Parker recalibrated. Instead of donating glasses, Warby Parker has joined efforts to donate PPE to communities in need with its longtime partner, VisionSpring—both in the U.S. and abroad.

I spoke with cofounder and co-CEO Dave Gilboa about transforming Warby Parker’s charitable arm for a challenging era. We also talked about the evolving meaning of corporate responsibility, and whether Warby Parker would consider collaborating with former competitors to meet 2020’s unique demands. Excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Retail Brew: Tell us about the shift from buy a pair, give a pair to PPE donations. Were there any challenges to upending your traditional donation model?

Dave Gilboa: The last few months have been disruptive to every business, and that’s certainly true for Warby Parker in the way that we operate as a team, the way that we engage with customers, [and] the way that we sell our products.

Right when Covid was having a big impact on the U.S. and other parts of the world, we had a number of meetings with VisionSpring and they had some ideas around where they could source PPE, where they could distribute it, and where it would have the most impact, and asked if we would consider shifting our model. This was a really easy decision for us, where in areas that we’re able to continue to fund the distribution of glasses, we’re doing so, but in areas where we’re not, it was a no-brainer that we should be investing in and enabling the sourcing and distribution of PPE.

In parts of the world where organizations like VisionSpring operate—India, Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa—some of those countries had shelter in place orders where people were not allowed to be out in public. Employees and entrepreneurs that they were working with were not able to go out and distribute glasses even if they wanted to. But we also recognized that there are real safety needs in a lot of these communities where personal protective equipment was not available. We heard that pretty vocally including here in the U.S. We got calls that even at Johns Hopkins, one of the premier healthcare institutions in the world, they didn’t have enough PPE for their workers and so we were able to work with our own suppliers and get N95 masks and gowns and other PPE. We funneled some of that into hospital partners and healthcare partners here in the U.S.

Is there a future where Warby Parker would retire the buy a pair, give a pair model for good? Or do you see it remaining in some way?

We expect that our primary distribution model will still be one for one, buy a pair, give a pair. But in order to enable the distribution of those glasses, we expect that we might in addition be helping our partners source and distribute PPE. We don’t view it as one or the other. So hopefully it will be a hybrid model for some period of time until the world stabilizes and has some better control over the disease. But even going forward, I think we’re recognizing how important PPE is to both protecting individuals and enabling the distribution of glasses and proper healthcare in communities around the world. So if we can continue to play a positive role there, we’d certainly like to.

As DTC brands have introduced new initiatives to aid relief efforts, I’ve noticed collaborations between brands that would have been unheard of a few years ago—competitors are coming together to share knowledge and production ideas, especially around PPE. (The Rothy’s Open Innovation Coalition comes to mind.) As a leader in retail, what’s your take on the new ways brands are collaborating now, and has Warby Parker considered partnering with brands in this way?

As it comes to other for-profit organizations, we absolutely want to encourage as many donations and as much visibility into these problems and how we can band together to solve them. With VisionSpring and their PPE efforts, we’re excited that some other organizations have joined us including Target and Williams Sonoma and the Levi Strauss Foundation. So I think this is getting some visibility amongst some really big, deep-pocketed corporations.

We do have some discussions with other leaders in the industry, some of whom are involved with VisionSpring already, and some aren’t, and while in normal business times we might view some of these companies as competitors, to your point, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to help us realize we all have bigger goals here. And our number one priority is around doing good and solving problems and creating positive impact, so if we can band together around some mutual product efforts we’re very excited to do so.

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Let's talk about your mission and values as a company more broadly. In recent months, many companies' interpretations of corporate responsibility have been called into question following widespread protests against systemic racism. How does this conversation factor into Warby Parker’s definition of corporate responsibility, and what efforts is your company making to become more equitable?

We have always been committed to fostering diversity and inclusion at Warby Parker, but I think the last few months have forced every organization, including ours, to ask what more we can be doing, both internally and externally, to provide more equity in the world and in our organization. So we have taken the time as a team to more clearly articulate our racial equity strategy, and published that to the world. We wanted to make sure we’re been transparent both internally and externally, from our diversity statistics at every level of the company to organizations that we’re supporting, that are fighting systemic racism, having clear goals around how we can increase representation in the communities where we have really strong networks and can create strong influence, including things like supporting Black entrepreneurship and supporting Black students who want to become optometrists. So there’s been a lot of conversation internally about what we can do to ensure that we’re really leading by example and thinking about all our own processes, but also then figuring out how we can support efforts outside of Warby Parker.

I think one of the things that’s always exciting to us about building a social mission into the fabric of the company is that as we get bigger, as Warby Parker has more resources, we’re able to have more impact. Our goal has always been to have more direct positive impact ourselves but also show that you can build a for-profit business that does good in the world and can inspire a lot of entrepreneurs and companies that have been around for a while that you don’t just have to choose one: You don’t just have to focus on profits and shareholders. By taking a stakeholder-centric approach, you’re able to attract and retain the most talented team and are able to achieve better business results. So that’s always been our goal with regards to programs like buy a pair, give a pair, but also now having taken the time to codify our goals as it relates to racial equity.

There’s a growing understanding that consumers are concerned with and interested in how companies live up to their "brand values." How will this affect the future of DTC brands?

We do fundamentally believe that the best businesses and the best brands need to have a social mission. That’s going to be a requirement—I think it already is a requirement. When the smartest, most curious, most passionate people are choosing where to work, that is increasingly becoming their top criterion around working for an organization where they feel like their work is making the world better and they’re driving real impact.

To your point, consumers are starting to ask tougher questions. There’s more transparency than ever, there’s more connectivity than ever, between consumers and employees and companies, and that is playing out on social media in ways that are making a lot of companies uncomfortable. But we think that that transparency is really good for individuals and for the world. Leaders should be forced to be accountable and take a stand and define their values.

For companies that haven’t done that until recently, I think it’s fair to provide some criticism. But I’m a big believer that individuals should get a second chance. Just because there hasn’t been a strong social mission at companies, it doesn’t mean that they can’t introduce them.

I’d encourage leaders to ask themselves why they didn’t incorporate something like this before, and maybe now that they’ve been educated and have a different stance, what are the ways that they can truly build something in a sustainable way so that it’s not just a one-time reaction to some negative press, but it becomes something that’s a core part of their identity, that will allow widespread impact because of the unique resources that they have to create real change.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.