In the past few years, TOMS shoes, modeled after the Argentine alpargata shoe, have become ubiquitous on college and high school campuses. The appearance of these TOMS shoes is rather that of having wrapped a colored Ace bandage around one’s foot, and the low cut of the shoe makes it nearly impossible for the wearer to wear socks without looking rather nerdy.
But enough about appearances. The premise of TOMS shoes is that for every pair of TOMS shoes bought, the company will distribute a pair to a shoeless child somewhere in a developing country. Sounds good, right? Well, it has led to the distribution of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes to children living in poor communities both in the Global South and here in the United States. And TOMS does not just give children one pair of shoes and then abandon them — they work to supply each child to whom they give shoes with shoes throughout their childhood.
At this point, you may be wondering how I could find fault with TOMS shoes. By the time you finish this article, you may want to accuse me of being a Scrooge.
But there are a few things about this model of charity which prevent me from being yet another TOMS-wearer.
First, the TOMS-shoes model of giving is characteristic of Western imperialism. Shoes manufactured outside of the United States (in China, to be exact), are shipped back to the U.S. en masse for sale, and to other countries for what are termed “Shoe Drops.” For these Shoe Drops, volunteers and TOMS employees from the U.S. fly to various countries to distribute shoes to children living in poor communities. At best, this is a misguided attempt at aid, and provides the possibility that the eyes of the Americans who go will be opened to the fact that there are people throughout the world living in extreme poverty. At worst, these trips are a form of poverty tourism and economic imperialism. Wealthy Americans spend more money on a plane ticket than most of the people whose communities they visit make in a year (or two years, or three!), to give children a pair of shoes which might have cost $5 to produce. Moreover, it supports the belief that these people cannot make it on their own, so rather than helping them to develop a healthy economy, we should give them handouts – an imperialist concept if there ever was one.
Moreover, while Shoe Drops in theory sound like a way to benefit a community, they have the potential to be devastating to it as well. If anyone makes and/or sells shoes in an area where TOMS does a Shoe Drop, all of their chances at making a living are wiped out. TOMS’ model of giving does nothing to support entrepreneurs in developing countries. Rather, TOMS’ model of giving is detrimental to the efforts of these people.
TOMS shoes One-for-One model is not a sustainable form of aid. TOMS’ success in distributing shoes to children in poor communities depends on Americans buying TOMS shoes. You could say the same of organizations like World Vision, or Compassion International – they are only able to help children so long as people continue to give them money. However, giving money to NGOs is not going to go out of style the way that a certain style of shoes might.
TOMS is a for-profit company. There are shoes listed for sale on their website which retail for $140 – meaning that, for $140, a girl in the U.S. can buy a pair of shoes which probably cost $5 to make and to transport, and a child in Argentina will receive a pair of shoes which also probably cost $5 to make and transport, and at TOMS shoes the company executives are laughing all the way to the bank. The least expensive shoes listed on TOMS website for an adult cost $44, which still represents an enormous profit margin. All of this to say – while TOMS may be doing something which could be considered a good deed, they are making a great deal of money while doing so.
Ultimately, my biggest issue with TOMS shoes is that they represent consumerism masquerading as charity. I would imagine that most TOMS-wearers have several other pairs of shoes in their closet which are not TOMS. TOMS allows people to buy another pair of shoes without feeling guilty about it, because their purchase benefited a child in need. However, trying to address the issue of poverty by purchasing a pair of buy-one-give-one shoes is rather like trying to heal a bullet wound by putting a bandaid on it. For those considering buying a pair of TOMS, I would urge you to pursue charitable giving through another avenue, such as purchasing a micro-loan to help entrepreneurs in developing countries.