Last month, David Merritt shared a stage with Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, in Detroit. His goal, alongside other startup founders: to pitch his fashion brand and receive feedback from a panel that included Branson and the CMO of Shinola (a fellow Detroit native), among others. A former basketball captain at the University of Michigan, where he studied business, Merritt’s court-born confidence shows clearly in footage from his pitch. But it’s just as clear that his mission drives him: concurrently with his fashion brand, Merit Goodness, the young entrepreneur runs FATE, a youth mentorship initiative motivating kids in Detroit to aspire to and pursue college degrees. The program provides its students with college scholarships, which are funded with 20 percent of the fashion brand’s profits.
“We believe we can make a beautifully designed product,” Merritt says. And indeed, the Merit line is handsome, with a casual, sporty aesthetic that reads easily from the more athletic-leaning hoodies and joggers to the embroidered tees, V-necks, tanks and more. (In school, Merritt found himself in Michigan sweats and hoodies 90 percent of the time, between class and practice; he describes himself as the company’s typical customer.) “But at the same time,” he continues, “the product that we’re making is making sustainable, long-term impact.”
At this point it’s easy to feel cynical. Every brand has some variation of a “giving back” clause either tacked on to their websites or beaming brightly for a week on their social media profiles. But rather than an addendum to a larger agenda, the FATE program preceded Merit and is its own fully realized operation — a four-year program following a select group of 20 students through their graduation next May. “We’re extremely young, and a very small company,” Merritt admits, “and we are trying to do something pretty big in terms of building two companies at once.” But the operation’s warm reception in Ann Arbor brings promise, and indeed, the company has its sights set on someday opening a superstore in Detroit.
No doubt TOMS started something great with the “one for one” model, which continues to grow. But this is the next step: brands that not only provide raw materials, but draw up the blueprints and lend a hand in the building of communities — or rebuilding, in the case of Detroit. There’s no shortage of cities across the US that could benefit from such an approach. And fortunately, many entrepreneurs like Merritt are stepping up. “I find,” Merritt says, “that there’s more and more companies that are not only interested in the bottom line, but more so interested in the impact that they’re making in their community, with the customers that they serve. They’re not really seen as trends,” he says. “I don’t really see it stopping.”
Nor should it. The popularity of the TOMS model, and the growth of its successor, benefits everyone. Here are six American companies, Merit included, that are working to form a more perfect union.
Ann Arbor, MI Based | Serving Detroit, MI
Towards Rebuilding: “We want to be a fashion brand and we want to be known for our product just as much as we’re known for the impact,” Merritt says. Taking design cues from both Nike and Stay True, a fashion brand known for positive slogans, the Merit message is one of “world-class citizenship”; that means top-tier fabric, design and comfort meant to appeal to both buyers who are hip to the cause and buyers who are simply hip. But it also means care for the community, which is as much a part of the FATE program as college prep. “We think this idea of world-class citizenship is one that is universal and that we’re all striving for. We’re all striving to be better people, we’re all striving to make our communities better.”
NYC Based | Serving Ohio, Southeast Michigan and Others Nationwide
Towards the Homeless: Any distance runner should know the importance of a good pair of socks. Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that the top-requested item of clothing at homeless shelters — above underwear, pants, shirts, winter clothes — are socks? If you’re the type to burn through pairs, make Bombas your new supplier: each time you buy a pair of performance-built socks — we’re talking built-in arch support, blister tabs, reinforced footbeds, moisture-wicking cotton — the company donates a specially designed pair to a homeless shelter in the US.
Sword and Plough
Denver, CO Based | Serving Denver, NYC, Boston, MA
Towards Veterans: Veteran unemployment in the US is currently at a seven-year low. Businesses like Sword and Plough, which sells wares crafted by veterans, can keep that trend going and support the brave many who have fought for us. The brand’s handsome backpacks, purses, accessories and more are made with recycled military surplus materials along with American-made leather and textile accents. Ten percent of profits support veteran-focused organizations (predominantly Got Your 6).
Brooklyn, NY Based | Serving Brooklyn, NY
Towards Education: Like Merit Goodness, State Bags makes high-quality goods in support of their own nonprofit program for at-risk youths. Focusing on the Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook (two of which are home to New York’s worst-ranked schools), the Country Roads Foundation provides school supplies and mentorship programs led by adults who were brought up in underserved neighborhoods. And considering their backpacks and totes were good enough for Beyoncé, they’re surely worthy of your shoulders.
Quixotic Pocket Squares
Dallas, TX Based | Serving Dallas, TX
Towards Women: We liked these guys enough to feature them in the 2014 GP100, and that still stands; their line of fine linen pocket squares has grown ever wider, ensuring every customer a vast range of wardrobe-amplifying accents. If you’re not a pocket square enthusiast, then their cause may make you reconsider. Ten percent of profits support shelters and support two centers for women who have experienced domestic violence — a population that makes up one in three American women.
NYC Based | Serving Communities in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York
Towards Reducing Gun Violence: By now, no one is a stranger to news of gun violence. Liberty United works to reduce at least one aspect of gun violence: using parts and ammunition from illegal guns removed from circulation by partner communities, the organization crafts and sells handmade accessories for men and women, each of which is engraved with the seized item’s serial number. Upwards of 20 percent of profits go to support programs working to end gun violence in those communities.