Wednesday, July 25, 2012


It’s not very hard to look around any public place these days and point out several people wearing TOMS shoes.  I am no stranger to the brand either, having owned several pairs for the last three or so years. But I recently reflected on just how big the TOMS phenomenon has become when it also dawned on me how annoyed I am that every day I get spam emails from them after purchasing a pair of their shoes online about three years ago.  I eventually came to the realization that the TOMS brand might not be the miracle company that so many people are claiming it to be.
By now, most people have heard about TOMS and will have a general understanding of their business model.  For every pair of shoes purchased in Canada, the US and other developed countries where they are sold, a pair of shoes is given to someone in a developing country that doesn’t have shoes.  Blake Mycoskie founded the company in 2006 after he traveled to Argentina and allegedly saw severe economic disparities that he wanted to do something about.  Seems like a pretty good idea right?  I thought so too, at first.  Not only do they make one feel good about the fifty or so dollars being spent on a pair, they are very comfortable, and recently have also become very fashionable.
The problem is that sometimes we in the developed world have a ‘whites in shining armor’ kind of attitude towards the developing world.  It makes us feel better to make such a purchase, while at the same time allowing us to continue on with our consumption of consumer products.  What is sometimes forgotten is that developing countries do have thriving local manufacturing and market economies that may actually be undermined by a flood of foreign aid.  And in fact, TOMS creates the illusion that there are no shoes to be purchased in some of these countries when there often are shoes available through some very productive local markets.  By intruding upon people in an attempt to save them from poverty, the incentive to produce is destroyed and local merchants are put out of business.  When they go out of business, they can’t afford to buy shoes or other goods for their families, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.
There are places in the developing world where help may be needed.  We just need to be more careful with how it is offered.  Instead of providing material aid, it would be far more productive to support local market systems that encourage self-sufficiency.  It could even be argued that the developed world has an incentive for keeping poor countries poor, and providing material aid to gain economic control seems to be an ideal platform for this model.  If you stop and think about it for just a second, it makes sense.  Corporations have interests in continuing to manufacture goods in countries with lax labor and environmental standards, not to mention the vast amount of natural resources that the developed world would like to exploit.
Amy Costello, in her excellent podcast on TOMS points out that the shoes are made in factories located in China, Ethiopia and Argentina.  But wait, shouldn’t those be countries that TOMS would theoretically be distributing shoes to?  To be fair, she makes no mention of the factory conditions, like whether the employees are paid a fair wage, so it can’t be argued that TOMS factories are comparable to sweatshops.  TOMS claim: “We require that the factories operate under sound labor conditions, pay fair wages and follow local labor standards.”  It’s just that local labor standards in some countries still allow the exploitation of workers and the environment.  It must not be forgotten that TOMS is first and foremost a FOR-PROFIT company with a very good marketing strategy.  The ‘one for one’ model does in no way imply that TOMS shoes are made and sold without a dramatic markup for the consumer.  So, we pay heavily for the ‘privilege’ of donating a pair of shoes to someone in a developing country that may or may not benefit from our benevolence.
What also seems to be a little known fact is that Blake Mycoskie has appeared on two reality TV shows in the US: the Amazing Race in 2002 and America’s Sexiest Bachelor.  This information would be completely irrelevant, except that, as Costello points out, it kind of makes you question the guy’s motives.  He certainly has propelled the company into the spotlight rather successfully in the past six years.  The first time I bought TOMS was right after seeing his appearance on OPRAH, where he did a very good job at convincing America of the company’s good intentions and we were all moved to go out and buy a pair because this guy was going to save the world.  I have a problem with this method of exposure because there are so many people in the developing world doing such good work, especially local organizations that get no recognition in our mainstream media.  A newspaper headline about the ‘local boy does good’ goes a lot further than one about an organization founded by local, indigenous people.
If you listen to the podcast, you will also hear the evidence suggesting that TOMS gets some of its support from various Evangelical Christian organizations.  To be clear, there are some secular contributors as well.  One of the more famous shoe drop videos, where American Idol winner Kris Allan accompanied the shoe drop with a performance, depicts the children singing about Jesus.  Personally, I am a little put off when my money is ultimately going towards spreading the word of Christ alongside the material aid from an organization that claims to be autonomous of religion and politics.  While Christian organizations may have some good intentions, the fact that help is sometimes given as a trade for conversion is extremely disturbing.  Recently, I attended a conference for the Society of Ethnobiology, and upon reflecting on the talks I heard, the single most important overarching theme is one of acceptance and appreciation for indigenous peoples and a reverence for their knowledge of the environment.  We have no right to first impose our economic and political models on these communities, and then also tell them that their way of seeing the world and of being is not right.
So, is there such thing as a socially conscious product?  The key perhaps is not to look at anything as a product.  No form of consumption is beneficial to the world at this point, even though it is also inescapable.  Is it socially responsible to buy TOMS? That will have to depend on your reasoning behind the purchase.  If you decide to buy a pair only because you think it is a worthy cause, then no.  If you buy them because they are comfortable and fashionable, then they are probably no worse than any other pair of sneakers that are likely made in a sweatshop somewhere else in the developing world.  However, I will end with one final thought.  I tend to be very apprehensive about supporting companies that profess to do good things simply to corner a market and sell a product.  Especially when I feel like I am being misled.  Sure, the pair of Adidas that I might buy was likely made in sweatshop, but Adidas doesn’t really advertise themselves as a sustainable and socially responsible company, so they don’t have the same obligation to the consumer for transparency as TOMS should.  Think twice about spending money to support any company that makes those kinds of promises until you do some background research, because chances are, the product you are buying is still putting a large profit into a corporate pocket.
You can find Amy Costello’s podcast here:
You-tube link to the Bridge-2-Rwanda shoe drop with Kris Allan:


Unknown said...
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w3webschool said...
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