What if you could show your gratitude and appreciation to the people who made your favourite products, in the same way you might tip the staff at a favourite restaurant? With tip me, now you can.
Throughout the Western world, cheap clothing is everywhere. With fashion giants like Primark and H&M, it’s easy for consumers to pick up a new pair of trousers for the price of a restaurant meal or replace a barely-worn T-shirt because it doesn’t excite its owner anymore. This partly comes down to the way big brands seduce customers with low prices—even when those same customers are aware that, at some point down the supply chain, someone must be losing out.
In 2014, German entrepreneur Jonathan Funke started to feel frustrated by the implications of this aspect of the clothing industry. But after talking to shoppers about their buying experience, he and his co-founders realised that there was more to the process than price tags: when faced with a colourful sea of endless choices going back as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to get a sense of each item’s story. Beyond the ‘Made In…’ labels sewn discreetly into each garment, there lies a gulf of obscurity between consumers in one country and manufacturers on the other side of the world.
Funke wondered what would happen if he could influence this part of a shopper’s experience. What if customers had the option to tip the people whose product they were buying, in the same way that they would tip a waiter who had served them an enjoyable meal? So in 2018, Funke co-founded tip me: a company whose mission is to create a global tipping system for factory workers.
How do you tip somebody halfway around the world?
A cornerstone of tip me’s strategy is that it gives customers a way of paying each worker directly when shopping online. While the brands that have signed up with tip me pay a fee to use the feature, it’s not up to them to manage and distribute the tips they get in return. In fact, tip me bypasses the company entirely. “We know each and every worker,” Funke explains. “When a company comes to us saying they want to use tip me, we contact all their factories and get the workers’ information via the payroll system: their names, hours, phone number and bank details. We set up an account for each person in our internal management system, along with a corresponding profile. Then we calculate how many tips they get, and send the tips directly to their bank accounts. We also let them know via WhatsApp or text message once their tip has been sent.” In this way, tip me recreates the close relationship that we’re used to seeing between a waiter and their guests.
From the customer’s point of view, tip me looks similar to the carbon offsetting option that pops up when you’re about to buy an plane ticket. The feature is noticeable enough to make shoppers pause for thought, but doesn’t disrupt their buying process if they’re not interested. “There’s nothing you have to download or install,” Funke continues. “We explain that this is the person who will receive your tip, and describe what they want to do with it. Then you select your product, click ‘add tip’, and choose how much you want to give—that’s it!” Finally, each tip is collected in a digital pool that corresponds to the respective production site, and is finally split fairly between the workers who created the product. “That’s super important,” Funke stresses: “That the tips are split by people on the ground.”
A digital nudge – that changes consumer behaviour and perceptions
Consumers have taken to the tipping process quite happily. “I was extremely surprised by how many people tip. Initially, I expected maybe 5-15% of consumers would. But over the last year, around half of all shoppers have tipped,” Funke explains. This is partly due to the fact that in a lot of cases, buyers want to forge personal connections with their belongings. Tip me invites people to imagine a favourite jacket—one that would be sorely missed if it got lost, for example. How would it feel to tip the person who actually created that garment and all of the memories you now associate with it? For many, the answer is positive and engaged. “It really resonates with people’s need to understand where their products come from; to feel more connected to each product’s origins, and also to take part in distributing global wealth.”
Fast fashion outlets put quantity before quality, teaching their target audience to throw out 6-month old outfits and make way for new seasons. Tip me promotes a more sustainable practice by encouraging shoppers to ask themselves: “How much value does this clothing have for me personally, and how can I acknowledge that value meaningfully?”
Funke also emphasises the wider significance of a global tipping system. Consumers in the Global North often expect clothes to be woven, dyed, and assembled in far-flung countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. Perhaps consumers are even reluctant to think about the lifecycle of clothes when they know certain brands treat the workers at the end of the supply chain badly and pay them poorly. But actually seeing the lives and livelihoods of individuals behind each product fosters a more engaged and empathetic mindset.
Users have taken well to tip me’s alternative approach, especially in countries like the US, where the practice of tipping is already deeply embedded into the economy. Funke also emphasises how most Westerners are aware of their economic privilege compared to the countries in which their commodities are probably being manufactured. At the same time, “it’s about so much more than the money,” Funke clarifies. “It’s about respect and saying thank you. Consumers want to show their gratitude, and that’s really what’s being received by the workers. When we ask our workers how they feel getting money from the other side of the world, the answer we often get is ‘for the first time I feel seen in what I do,’ or ‘I feel respected for getting up every day and doing this work’.” The app also tells users how their tip got spent, contextualising the gesture alongside each worker’s personal aspirations and offering a glimpse into their lives and cultures.
A global tipping system: tackling unfair supply chains from fashion to food
At the moment, tip me works with two brands and is set to reach five by the end of the year. They’re rigorous about making sure the factories they work with adhere to human rights regulations, and they prioritise making supply chains more transparent and ethical. “It doesn’t make any sense to give tips to child labourers, or people doing slave work, or those who don’t have the right to form a union. We have to make sure that each factory meets the standards of the International Labour Organisation.”
Is a global tipping system more effective than other ways of tackling unfair supply chains, like fighting for higher wages for manufacturers overall? Funke replies: “I don’t think it’s better or worse than any other method. They are just different.” He makes a comparison between organisations like Sea Watch, which carries out rescue missions in the Mediterranean, and refugee organisations that work for policy change: similarly, tip me operates on a case-by-case basis rather than advocating for systemic change. And while Funke recognises the importance of macro-level activism, he notes that tip me has an advantage because it doesn’t go against the grain of existing behaviours and processes. “The worker’s information is woven into the buying decision. It’s not an external thing.”
The company have started with the textile industry because fashion retail has a huge online presence, making it easier to get a digital foot in the door. “And it’s very easy to locate an individual worker in the garments industry,” Funke adds. “But in the future we want to move onto food as well.” This might take time because of the complexity of supply chains in the food industry, but despite the challenges of entering different markets, the signs are encouraging overall. Brands are happy to pay for tip me in order to boost their ethical credibility, while consumers are grateful for the transparency and equity offered by the feature. Moreover, tip me is impactful from the get go. “We can start changing consumer mindsets as soon as today!” Funke asserts. “When consumers see who made their shoes, they understand their buying decisions affect real human beings (and who those human beings are). In our interviews with users, at least half say they’ll consume differently in the future as a result.”
Unlike a Fairtrade certificate, which is somewhat abstract to the everyday consumer, tip me paints a picture of the individual instead. “That’s so much more powerful, you know?” Funke points out. “In the end, I think our big vision is that in ten years’ time, buying food and clothes online would be like buying food at the farmers’ market. When you buy at the market, you chat with someone who actually got the potatoes out of the ground. And even though some textiles and types of food can’t be grown in Germany—coffee or cotton, say—in this new digital age, there’s no reason why we can’t have the feeling of a farmers’ market around other everyday goods. And when people have this direct connection to the origins of the product, change will happen. Once you have that transparency, it becomes so easy to do the right thing.”