I got a pair of TOMS shoes in the mail last week (thanks Mom). They’re super comfortable, and I got them in this snazzy gold herringbone pattern:
I know there are issues with give-away philanthropy, so I did a little digging to see how sustainable TOMS Shoes really are. Putting aside TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie‘s accidental speech to the anti-gay Christian group Focus on the Family in June, there are several fundamental problems with the way TOMS gives back.
Giveaways Don’t Solve the Problem
As Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing, reminds us, this is a classic case of giving someone a fish vs. teaching him/her how to fish. Giving children shoes is all very well and good, but does nothing to address the root causes of the poverty that makes them shoeless in the first place. In fact, it may do more harm than good.
Out-competes Local Business
In countries where massive amounts of free shoes are given away, local shoemakers and shoe vendors are losing business. Granted, TOMS says that it gives shoes to children who don’t have them, and many of those children may not be able to afford shoes. But flooding a town with free shoes is a band-aid fix that is potentially harmful to local business and does nothing to empower the people living in poverty in that town.
In April, while TOMS was running its “A Day Without Shoes” fundraiser/awareness campaign, Good Intentions Are Not Enough ran a counter-campaign called “A Day Without Dignity.”
The campaign asked aid workers and people living in countries where shoe drops happen to write about the following topics:
- People’s memories of childhood and what their actual needs were
- The dignity and control that comes from work and not from receiving handouts
- The glut of unnecessary donated goods
- Whites in Shining Armor swooping in to “save” people
- What it really takes to raise awareness, more than just walking barefoot
- The problems created by handing out shoes or other goods
- The issue of dignity and how we portray people in our advertising campaigns
- How doing something because it feels good and is popular doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do
I don’t think TOMS is bad, maybe just misguided. The fact that it has become such a recognizable name is incredible. The success of the company says good things about first-world consumers and the rise of conscious consumerism. As blogger Daniela Papi points out, TOMS Shoes – though not actually an NGO – has gotten a lot of Americans excited about giving. It is furthering the discussion about socially-conscious business and getting people to think about their purchases differently. In that respect, I say TOMS has been a smashing success.
It’s gotten so popular, that Skechers is now ripping off TOMS’ model with the not-at-all-original Bob’s shoes:
SoleRebels: TOMS Alternative
TOMS has been criticized for focusing more on giveaways than jobs. My TOMS are Made in China, and though the company holds its factories to a code of conduct and conducts regular audits, the “local labor standards” in China are not what you’d call a shining beacon of righteousness. There is a shoe company called SoleRebels that sells shoes made by workers in Ethiopia who are paid 300% the wages of other garment workers. Headquartered in Addis Ababa and Ontario, the company uses sustainable business practices and natural, recycled, and locally-sourced materials, and is the only WFTO Fair-Trade certified footwear company.
So all-in-all, next time I ask for a gift of shoes for myself, I’ll check out SoleRebels over TOMS, but I am glad that some little kid somewhere has a pair of shoes now. I hope that kid is walking to school in them, getting an education and breaking out of the cycle of poverty that keeps her family in an economic state where they can’t afford shoes in the first place.
TOMS Shoes: An opportunity for “Bad Aid” to generate “GREAT Aid” by Daniela Papi
Tom’s Shoes: Not the Right Fit? by Sean Poole