Cane Toads A Shoe-In for Social Impact
Wednesday, 15th May 2013 at 11:55 am
How does online shopping for cane toads have a positive social impact? This week we look into the business model of Gideon Shoes and its relationship with the Street University in Spotlight on Social Enterprise – a column that explores the challenges and impact of social business in Australia.
Photo: Gideon Shoes
You may never have considered how online shopping for cane toads could have a positive social impact. You may also never have considered what these unwelcome pests have to do with fashion. But one social business has combined these elements to sell ethically produced shoes from Australian materials like toad and kangaroo leather to fund youth development projects in Western Sydney.
Founded by entrepreneur Matt Noffs, Gideon Shoes was established to fund the work of Street University which he started with his wife Naomi as a part of the Ted Noffs Foundation – started by Matt’s grandfather Reverend Ted Noffs back in 1970.
“We run a variety of Social Enterprises – the Street Universities being the largest and most successful. The Street University is a Model 1 SE. It doesn't raise capital, its a non-profit service that works with disadvantaged young people from around NSW and Canberra,” Noffs says.
“The idea behind the first Street University was simple – engage with disadvantaged kids in South West Sydney. It's a one-stop shop and it fuses the knowledge of the mental health field, the drug field, the education field and the crime prevention field.
Noffs says although the Foundation runs several social enterprises – it’s the shoe business that catches peoples attention.
“Gideon Shoes is the social enterprise that intrigues people the most but it's relatively small next to its name. It's a Model 2 social enterprise – a hybrid. It seeks first and foremost to offer sweat-shop free shoes to the market designed by the young people at Street University.
“It's currently going through an apotheosis – shoes are pretty expensive to make ethically so we're looking at switching to focusing on t-shirts designed and produced by the street uni kids and offering both.”
After visiting factories filled with both adults and children working in unacceptable conditions it soon became obvious to Noffs that having Gideon Shoes manufactured overseas wasn’t an option that fitted in with the company’s ethics. Noffs says the shoes are handmade in Australia almost entirely from Australian materials, including cane toad hide and kangaroo leather.
“It is just as pointless donating a pair of shoes to a person in need, whether a child or adult in the third world, if you’re creating suffering during the process of production. We believe that countries such as China, India and Africa are used as slave nations for the developed world.
“It’s something we, as the developed world, are largely ignorant about. It’s harsh but it’s true,” Noffs says.
Gideon Shoes received a start up grant from the Federal Government but also received a lot of in-kind support from individuals who wanted to take part.
Noffs says that the most rewarding part of being part of a social enterprise is creating opportunities, new worlds and new ways of thinking.
“I don't talk to the point of Social Enterprise these days because I've come to realise it's jargon-fad. It's vernacular and it's impermanent. What is permanent is community work. At the end of the day there a several types of Not for Profit businesses,” Noffs says.
“The most rewarding aspect is being able to create opportunities alongside kids who have been shunned by the world. To show them that the world is an illusion and that reality is there for the making. “
“It was there when my wife and I set up the first Street University. It's there in the successes and the failures. So the joy with Gideon was creating Australia's first sneaker, an ethical product that Oxfam hailed as a beacon.
When it comes to creating an impact, Noffs advises to keep it simple.
“It's imperative to know that you're making a difference. I wouldn't use the word impact. I know that it's a buzz term like "Social Enterprise" but I think it's just vernacular invented to either refresh or disguise another word "outcome". Keep it simple. Make a difference.
“How does an organisation like ours monitor our ability to make a difference? We developed software called "TED" which we use across our therapeutic programs. It records raw data such as numbers, issues the kids face, changes in behaviour and outcomes – it creates regular reports for government on where the organisation is at. In fact, it was so attractive to government – I suppose because it minimised time on both sides – that they funded us to turn it into a business which we have done.
“Five other significant Not for Profit organisations now use our software. We tailor the software to meet the need of the organisation – so it's flexible and it saves time.
“At Street University we've installed a "TED Kiosk" which records raw data on how many kids we're seeing and what change they feel is occurring in their life.
“Our vision is to help young people realise their full potential and ultimately, be a creative force within the Not for Profit sector.”