Faith, Theology — March 1, 2012 9:21 am

The Tragedy of TOMS Shoes

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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.

 

 

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79 Comments

  • Are you making the connection that Tom’s one-for-one program is equivalent to WorldVision and Compassion international? I think you may want to rethink your homework a bit. While Tom’s does these handouts that are damaging I would strongly argue that WV and CI are not comparable. Although I don’t know as much about CI, I do know that WV works to provide things for sustainability, like education, farming techniques, clean water, etc. You cannot compare that with Toms “handouts”. It is true that food, clothing, etc. is provided through CI and WV, but it doesn’t stop there but rather works hard to provide a lasting change through their other programs. You need to check yourself before you attempt to write a blog that creates shock and awe values so people will read it.

    • Great insight/ article Naomi. This reminds me of a book called Toxic Charity that basically discusses the same thing. Also, there is a cool company called Earthwise Ventures that has picked up on this and is trying to solve this problem. Epipheo Studios made a video for them and you can watch it here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUDRvW3UXOU

    • Pretty sure he’s not making that connection, at least not the way you’re thinking. The only connection he made between Toms and WV/CI is that all three require money from Americans in order to work. The big, big difference (which he points out) is that Toms is also contingent on people liking a particular style of shoes, which will inevitably go out of style, whereas more direct charity of the sort required by WV/CI will not. He’s definitely placing WV/CI above Toms in terms of effectiveness, and isn’t at all arguing that WV/CI is damaging or unsustainable. Quite the opposite.

      • Whoops! I mean “she,” not “he.” Reading a couple articles at the same time and lost track of who wrote what. :-)

  • This also sounds a lot like the post recently published on the Blist blog, posted on Feb 8 under the title – “I Don’t Hate TOMS, I Promise.”

  • Bill – I am most certainly not comparing TOMS’ charitable efforts to those of World Vision or Compassion International. I strongly believe in the mission of both World Vision and Compassion International, and have supported them financially for several years. My point was that, the way that World Vision and Compassion International rely on donors, is the way that TOMS relies on buyers. However, shoes go out of style; tithing and giving to charity do not, and will not. I admit that I could have phrased that better. I was in no way trying to disparage the efforts of World Vision and Compassion International.
    Also, I was unaware of the post on BList, and as a result of reading your comments, googled it. The thoughts in this post are entirely my own, and have been rolling around in my brain for several years.

  • Bill – also, thanks again for bringing the post on BList to my attention! I found it to be thought-provoking and thoughtfuI do not think that our posts sound alike, beyond the fact that we are both urging consumers to think carefully before purchasing TOMS. From what I’ve read, it sounds like she has a background in international development and aid work, which is something I do not have.
    And I do want to make it explicit that I am not comparing the work that TOMS does to the work that World Vision and Compassion International do. Both WV and CI are life-giving, wonderful organizations, and I do think that people should be financially supporting them.

  • While I do agree with the majority of your argument I do have a question for you: what kind of shoes you wear? Do you make them yourself? Unless you do, chances are that they were made and sold to you in the same manner that Toms would have been. The truth is that we live under a capitalist system and it’s hard to escape it. I understand what you are trying to say and know the deeply disturbing ways in which Globalization works but compared to other companies I don’t think Toms is any worse. Yes they use charity as their campaign logo but that is not the selling point of their product. I happen to like wearing “ace bandages” on my feet solely for the comfort they provide. I didn’t buy them to help others because I am quite aware of the implications involved.I am in no way standing up for Toms, I do buy their products but have much of the same viewpoints as you do about the company. I just believe that it’s important to be realistic =)

  • I appreciate your thoughtful critique, but I found your final line to be ironic. After critically engaging the problems with TOMS, you uncritically recommend microloans, which have serious systemic problems as well. See, for example, the April 13, 2010 New York Times article, “Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans” (http://nyti.ms/wtrVvZ). Ethics is messy, and everything has a shadow side.

  • Thanks for the interesting perspective on Toms. While many people I know have Toms, I’ve never really gotten into the fad; mostly I just don’t like how they look on me.

    I am by no means an expert in micro lending; and I know some forms of it have made headlines. However, I attended a conference and heard the founder of Kiva.org speak, and while I’m sure it’s not perfect, it seems like the best possible way to invest in said micro lending.

    Again, not an expert, but I working for a bank myself, I found their model interesting.

    Seth

  • Just some thoughts.

    The Toms model is solely reliant on the concept of, “giving partners”. In fact, World Vision and Compassion International are two of Toms largest ‘Giving Partners’. Toms is not a “drive by” shoe drop company. Toms partners with already existing organizations and relies on their discretion and guidance on where shoes will be distributed.

    Toms is now producing shoes in a factory in Ethiopia (with more to come)- With the goal of training and empowering communities with craftsman skills and a (above)livable wage.

    Sure, Blake Mycoskie is making a ton of money but he is also doing a lot of good. I do agree that the major models of international aid and mission are problematic but at least there are people and companies actively trying to do some good.

    Toms shoes is hardly a tragedy. Have you ever spoken to a Toms employee? If you get a chance go visit their head quarters in Marina Del Rey and see if you still feel it is a company consumed with consumerism.

    Sure, helping people and charity is hip right now and thats weird. It may be misguided but I hope it is a trend that doesn’t end any time soon because it is a start. With some education and guidance this fad of helping people might turn into a revolution.

    Maybe there are bigger “Monsters” out there to spend your time attacking?

  • Regarding “The Tragedy of TOMS Shoes,” on March 1, 2012, I am appalled to read such ignorance and immaturity against a cause such as TOMS shoes. I have personally become a full supporter of TOMS shoes and will continue to support the cause. Most community members want to get involved, but do not know how. It is organizations like TOMS that allow us all to be able to contribute to a cause much larger than ourselves.

    TOMS openly informs its supporters that they work with other organizations to assist them in their “shoe drops.” They specifically work with organizations such as the Giving Partner, to ensure that communities are not negatively affected. A relative of mine has personally traveled to Africa as part of a medical group to help children in Kenya. Ever since hearing about TOMS, she recommends this organization to everyone, since she has had hands on experience treating children with severe foot diseases.

    Now that the Kony 2012 Campaign has swarmed our Internet frenzy lives, I am guessing you will also attack this praiseworthy cause. If you have any sense of “pay if forward,” this is a small way U.S. Citizens can make a huge impact. I will continue to buy a bracelet to support freedom and buy a pair of shoes to support children’s education.

    Amber
    San Diego

  • TOMSS ARE THE BEST <3 (:

  • Dear editor,

    Regarding, “The Tragedy of TOMS Shoes”, on March 1, 2012, I’m a firm believer that some help is better than none, and if TOMS shoes were not created, then who should be accounted for those shoes given to those in need. There is a problem with poverty and having people contribute to help is very difficult these days.Yes I agree that the shoes may not cost as much as they’re sold. TOMS shoes do make a good profit, since the shoes definitely don’t cost as much to make. Unfortunately TOMS shoes are not the only company who makes a profit, every business in the fashion industry does. Yet TOMS shoes go beyond just a profit, don’t you think. Not all companies who make a profit share any of it. In fact TOMS shoes do.
    Trying to solve poverty is an infinite goal; one person, one company or even many companies can’t solve it. Poverty is spread world wide, with many governmental obstacles to surpass its difficult to change it and takes a lot more than this company to solve it. TOMS shoes indeed doesn’t solve the problem of poverty, but it sure contributes in providing a better place for those individual and those who don’t have shoes on their feet.

    As a TOMS-wearer and supporter of the cause, I currently participated in the petition to bring TOMS shoes to San Diego State University, to keep helping the cause. As more people see this organization the more they are aware of how they can contribute too. Most people don’t have enough time or money to donate to any cause, and maybe this is an easier way for them to contribute, then so be it. Many individuals don’t know how to go about and be part of a cause, and if TOMS shoes provides it so easily, it makes it a good organization

    Ruth
    San Diego
    SDSU Student

  • Jesse – thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate it. I am glad to hear about the TOMS factory in Ethiopia. I think that represents a step toward sustainable development.

    Ruth and Amber – I’m glad to hear that you want to make a difference in the world. However, I am saddened to hear that you think that one of your only models for doing so is through shopping. As I mentioned in the article, that is my main issue with TOMS – that it is consumerism masquerading as charity. I think that if you and your friends are passionate about change, there are far more effective models for that, whether it be through advocacy, volunteering, or donating money to a non-profit. Giving $40 toward building a well in a community without clean water will ultimately do more good with regards to children’s health than buying a $40 pair of shoes.

  • Agree with you Naomi – as do most of us who work in some form of international aid.

    TOMS/Blake have the best of intentions, but they can make a few simple choices to do their business better. Creating jobs for the countries they want to help vs. handouts.

    Are they doing more than Nike or Coach? Sure. But because their profits are being made on the backs of their charity-focused marketing campaign (what do you think the “A Day Without Shoes” is?), they’re subject to more scrutinty.

  • Hi, Naomi!
    My name is Michelle and I am currently a Journalism student. I am doing a story about “One Day Without Shoes” for one of my classes and as I was doing research I found your post. It is a great read and gives an interesting point of view. I would love to interview you some time soon, even if it’s through phone!
    I believe this website has my email, so when you read this please contact me so we can set something up.
    I look forward to hearing from you!
    Best,
    M

  • How about the simple fact that people are going to buy them because they like them, and if the company want to give to charity then bonus! People will buy them even if they don’t give to charity so are you suggesting that’s a better alternitive! surely not!

    You seem to have overlooked the fact that mass production in this way is just the way things are done now, I don’t think TOMS giving shoes to charity is the same issue here. Wherever we turn poeple are out to make money. Sad but true i’m afraid.

  • To Naomi…fantastic critique! We need thinkers like you to put the brakes on the bandwagon and inform peoples’ compassion. As Americans we’re so caught up in imperialistic, self-focused, consumerism that’s it can be hard to have accurate perspective on what constitutes genuine charity.

    I also don’t hear you saying Tom’s sucks…it’s not like your article makes us say, “well then, screw it…let’s just buy some Nikes.” I take your challenge as a push back to Tom’s that all of us need: we need to act on our charitable ideas with the assumption that they will be the beginning of learning how to live rightly, not the end.

  • toms are cool but isnt it preety expencive espiacially if it siply just ace bandage colored

  • Never mind the cool factor. This is an inferior product. My 12 yr old daughter has owned a pair for a little over a month and there are already holes in the shoe. This is what is being handed out in third world countries? Might as well let them keep going barefoot.

  • Vanessa – I had an interesting conversation with a TOMS employee yesterday. Apparently the shoes they give out in developing countries are a different model than the ones sold in the U.S. They are wider, since people who grew up barefoot have wider feet, and they have thicker soles, so that they don’t wear out as fast.

    I’m still not on board with TOMS’ approach to development work… but I am encouraged to know that they take into account the living situations of the people to whom they give shoes.

  • Naomi,

    To keep it real, this is a great article but is on it’s way to becoming an even better article with all the critiques you have received. I say any article that raises eyebrows or begins a conversation is a good facilitation of media! I appreciate your perspective, and agree with your statement how harmful handouts can be, when people in developing countries are making their own shoes. People do not realize the damage “doing good” can do to villages in other countries. For example, if you “do good,” by dropping shoes, or school supplies, or clothes, etc…then there should be a realization of the impact that drop makes. Not just to the village one wants to bless, but to the villages around as well. In communities that work together to support each other, giving a product to only part of a community may cause conflict/controversy (after Westerns leave), and may be unfair to the rest of the community. I do hope that TOM’s shoes has done extensive research on where they do their shoe drops, and know the locals of the communities and understand how their impact can change a community or even cause harm to it.
    I also hope the TOMS shoe drop trips do bridge gaps between the consumers in the West and the countries receiving shoes.
    Every effort in doing good should be scrutinized, because its people who are at the center of this exchange. Let us not just to good for people, let’s do our best for them.

  • Katie – thanks so much for your thoughts! I’m thinking about rewriting this article to address the various critiques, or writing a companion article which discusses more effective forms of development work.

    It’s interesting to read about how donating items to one village can affect surrounding villages negatively. That’s not something I had thought about before.

    Thanks again! I really appreciate what you had to say.

  • i have 2 things to say:

    1) being an american
    myself, i think americans are either ignorant of the subject or just naturally giving/helpful people, regardless of the means. the concept of toms is to charity but it is really very capitalistic in nature. why sell the shoes for $60 when it only cost $5 to produce? why not sell it at $20 so more people can afford it, therefore more pairs to give. the whole campaign defeats the very purpose of giving.

    2) toms is a for-profit organization. being in the finance side of a not-for profit organization, toms is the opposite of our mission and everything we strive for – to give back to the public and consumers, for any revenue we make after all expenses are deducted. so we have hospitals, so when we make money, we will build more facilities or expand our buildings or improve our existing facilities, not take money to the bank. we don’t think of selling someting at a very expensive price that actually costs very little to make.

    note: i am trying to explain things in layman’s terms.

  • I understand what you are trying to point out but at least this company is doing something to help poverty stricken people out. What are you doing? I’m not trying to be sarcastic or rude inany way, but really, how are you helping villages or communites of poor people? I help World Vision financially because that is all i can afford to do at this time. eventually I will volunteer my time. It is so unbeleiveably annoying to read something like this. There are so many people like you that take a great thing, in this case TOMS, and completely and totally over analyze and misconstrue the entire premise. So, therefore, yes, you’re right, you are a Scrooge.

  • Sandy –

    The issue with TOMS is that the way they give does more harm than good. Giving shoes en masse to children living in villages has the potential to cause severe damage to the local economy, and to destroy the livelihoods of people who sell shoes in that region. TOMS does not alleviate poverty , and the company does not represent a healthy model of development.

    I do not appreciate your suggestion that since I do not support TOMS, I do not do anything in terms of poverty alleviation. I do give money to various organizations, but I research them on Charity Navigator first, and I make sure that they participate in healthy models of development.

    Also, please read this: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679628/the-broken-buy-one-give-one-model-three-ways-to-save-toms-shoes
    The author does a fantastic job of explaining how TOMS’ giving model is broken.

  • First, the Giving Pair (shoes given to children in developing countries) is manufactured in countries where shoes are frequently given, which includes Argentina where TOMS was inspired. TOMS does not support slave or child labor and therefore their factories in said countries tend to have higher standards than other factories in the third world.

    Second, TOMS operates in the red. They do not make actual profits. The majority of the grossed money obviously goes to manufacturing two pairs of shoes. The rest to hiring more people as the company expands. Not to mention the recent motion to make monetary contributions to hurricane Sandy victims with each purchase accompanying the one for one donation.

    Think whatever you want about TOMS, obviously it’s a personal decision who you do business with, but please do not spread false information. I’ve been researching TOMS for the past 6 weeks for a brand-focused design project, and I have found information that directly contradicts your discrepancies.

  • I dislike when people argue that giving shoes hurts the local economy. TOMS does not give without extensive research into each community. The people in these villages can’t afford shoes in the first place, so how is that taking away business from local shoe makers? If anything it creates business because now people need their shoes repaired, which is much cheaper than buying a new pair.

  • Naomi, thank you for your inspiring article. I applaud your efforts at attempting to stop what I have known to be true since the beginning of american Imperialism. I have lived 20 years outside the USAS – in Central America – and this goes on all the time. In fact, in addition to what you are saying, what you don’t say in your article is that a pair of Toms shoes costing $44+ are made for cents/hour or $5 /per day wage, and then sold BACK ON THEIR MARKET for a phenomenal cost. People not only in “1st world countries” but those elite in “3rd world” are the only ones who can purchase….and they believe that they are helping as well. I remember sugarcane farmers working in a Caribbean island nation producing sugar for the US market which was also sold localy in their country. They were literally unable to buy the sugar that they were making because their wages were so low….

  • I am a huge supporter of TOMS and I think that what they’re doing is incredible. I understand that people can get caught up in the idea that TOMS is a for-profit charity but honestly I would much rather have someone like Blake Mycoskie making buttloads of money than a billionaire high class designer who occasionally supports big-name charities. TOMS was created with the sole purpose of giving shoes to people who couldn’t afford shoes. They GIVE shoes to people who simply cannot AFFORD them, even if the shoes were made in their home village.
    You almost make it seem as though the TOMS company comes in and gives people shoes and then leaves and in doing that destroys the entire town economically. That is not what they do. They give, GIVE, shoes to people who otherwise wouldn’t have shoes at all. Now while that may hurt the local shoes store keep in mind that some of the TOMS shoes receivers couldn’t have bought shoes anyways. And, as another commenter said, it creates the need for a shoe-repair man.
    Also about the jab at TOMS looking like an “ace bandage wrapped around your foot”… they come in so many different colors and shapes that that doesn’t even make any sense. I don’t know if you know this but TOMS has their classics which I guess to some look like “ace bandaging” but they also have botas, cordones, and now flats which while they are more expensive look like hundreds of other “normal” shoes and make your argument against the way TOMS look completely invalid.

    I don’t know why you decided to critique and over-anaylize a simple shoe-giving company but to me it seems like time wasted. There are dozens of other shoe companies out there that are far worse than TOMS could ever be. Like Ruth (a commenter) said, some help is better than none.

    Proverbs 22:9
    “He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.”

  • Although it is good and Christian to give and be generous, we want to HEAL as well. We are also told to be as “sly as foxes” yes as “tame as doves”. Giving things away does not solve the problem of poverty or healing. It increases dependency and deflates morale and ego. Have you ever had to beg? Do you not think that person would have rather had a job? And then the associated dignity to buy or make his or her own shoes? Self worth is attached to giving. Why not just makes shoes for the shoeless through donations? Or a coop where locals make the shoes, are trained heads of the company, run the company themselves. This would be generous and healing. TOMS is billion dollar designer anyway. Can’t you see that? What is given away does not even cut into 5% of the profit made. If you had a billion dollars would you buy a billion pair of shoes or invest in education of the poor and start factories that were sustainable by the people themselves? I am a third world Christian and unfortunately Christian missions does the same things many times.

  • I am mentioning TOMS in a research essay I am writing, if anybody is interested in purchasing a pair of shoes that actually helps people in need, check out:

    http://www.solerebelsfootwear.co/

    It is an Ethiopian shoe company that immensely benefits its Ethiopian workers.

    • Ashley,

      I’m glad that you posted this link. I’m looking for a pair of sustainable, fair-trade shoes and these look great.

      Great name, by the way.

    • Ashley. I love the idea of supporting communities over seas. What are other companies like sole rebels that I can support?

  • Naomi,

    Thank you for posting this. I am trying to change the way I purchase goods and came across this article during my search for shoes. I think sometimes people take criticism of things they like (in this case TOMS) as criticism of themselves. TOMS isn’t perfect. The shoes are trendy and yes they are trying to help but that doesn’t mean that we should support them 100%. The issue with American capitalism is that we don’t question. If we hear that a company is doing something good (for example American Apparel manufacturing clothing in the US) we support that company without knowing much else about it. Let’s ask TOMS to do more. Let’s all ask ourselves to do more.

    I’d also like to say that giving TOMS $40+ for shoes is fine if you like them for style. If you give them the money because you feel they are helping, just give the money directly to the communities that need it. Just be honest about why you’re buying the shoes in the first place.

  • I hope that TOMS does a sufficient job of making sure they are not hurting the economy in the villages they donate to.
    However, I argue your claim that Blake Mycoskie and TOMS are “laughing all the way to the bank.” Maybe you haven’t read his book or heard him speak, but he has never claimed to be a charity. He is very open with the fact that yes, TOMS is for profit. Yes, he makes quite a nice salary. But no, TOMS absolutely does not take advantage of the consumer. They give way more than other leading shoe companies.
    Another thing I disagree with is “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.” Definitely, TOMS isn’t the best charity/company. But have you considered how many people wear TOMS who have never considered donating time or money? People don’t buy TOMS because they are looking for a charity to support. If that were the case, they would just donate some cash. They are looking for a shoe, and love TOMS philosophy more than another shoe. Or maybe, someone just wants an ace-bandage to wear. These are people who wouldn’t otherwise be helping those in need.

  • TOMS makes it very clear that they are for-profit so in no way are they “as sly as foxes, ” sneaking about trying to make money off of ignorant Americans. And while yes “giving a man a fish feeds him for a day but teaching him how to fish feeds him for a lifetime” at this current moment many people who live in poverty are already working but they earn so little that they can barely afford to eat much less provide shoes for themselves and/or their family so as a helping hand, a gift, TOMS provides a pair for those people who can’t afford them. It would be relatively impossible to give people shoes and teach them how to make shoes as well. Also, I highly, HIGHLY doubt that there is anyone who receives shoes from them and then becomes totally dependent on TOMS, that’s ridiculous and it just doesn’t happen.

    If you want to specifically donate to a charity where 100% of the profits go to help those in need then go for it, charities are awesome but for that purpose TOMS would probably not be the best choice because not 100% of their profits go towards charities but it’s not a scam and they are very open about it.

    But if your just like hey, I want some snazzy shoes for casual, everyday wear and I’d be willing to spend about $40 – $60 bucks then buy TOMS, their great, comfortable shoes that come in many different colors and styles. And yeah there are other companies that have the same charitable philosophy as TOMS and those are great too but don’t bash TOMS. They never claimed to be a nonprofit charity and they are very open about being for-profit and their overall goal is to give shoes to those who can’t afford them which, in my opinion, is amazing and astounding.

    Buy one pair and a pair is given to someone who can’t afford them, it’s simple.

  • Thanks Ashley for sharing the soleRebels Footwear website. These shoes are also cool looking and help a cause. I noticed the cost of these shoes is comparable in price to Toms. I like any idea where my purchase helps the people living in their community, however, how many people is it really helping? I would think, just the associates (and family) who work in the factory, suppliers, and of course the owners. Secondly, how many people in the community can afford shoes at $55.00 a pair….or do they sell them cheaper in their country? Think about it, even if this company is selling the shoes at a lower cost, the communities that Toms is helping would not be able to afford the shoes even at $15.00 a pair. To me, Toms makes more sense as at least they are helping more people…over 2 million to date.

    Recently, I did a presentation and wrote a paper about the good Toms does around the world. (Blake’s company does more good than some naysayer portray.) As part of my research, I found information about the types of diseases that are prevented (i.e. podoconiosis…a form of elephantitis) just from protecting your feet. It’s easy to take for granted the comforts (big or small) we American experience everyday (i.e. having multiple pairs of shoes). These kids don’t have that luxury and any assistance that is provided is GREATLY appreciated by these children. Did you know that in some countries, kids cannot go to school unless they have shoes? Also, did you know that Toms makes sure that as the kids grow, replacement shoes are provided? During my organizational leadership class, we had a leader in our community speak to our class. He talked about what makes a good leader. One of quotes he said was, “A marginal strategy implement quickly is better than a fabulous strategy implemented too late.” Just think of the number of kids that would not receive assistance had Blake waited for the perfect approach? As with every company, there is room for improvements. But negatively does not help cause. My suggestion would be instead of showcasing the negative, accentuate the positive. Then provide feedback directly to Blake on how he can improve his company.

    I know when I purchased my first pair of Toms for my daughter, I was not aware of the cause. However, after I learned that my small purchase would help someone in need, the purchase became more special.

    Thanks for reading:)

  • To the Ashleys: Thanks for your feedback! I have heard of Sole Rebels and I love the idea of a fair-trade shoe company. I also agree that as Americans we have a tendency not to ask questions.

    Selina – I’m not sure that the number of people helped matters as much as whether the help they receive is effective.

  • Naomi,

    I can see how helping a country to sustain themself is more effective than providing handouts, but sometimes you have to bring a balance until they are able to do it on their own. So if providing shoes helps prevents diseases, such as podoconiosis…… which is transmitted through bare feet, I would say that it is effective because it saves lives. Having shoes also allows kids, who otherwise would not have the opportunity, to attend school simply because they have shoes again show its effectiveness, as they can improve their quality of life.

    Teaching one how to fish is critical and as one of the earlier bloggers indicated, Blake is making strides in that direction. As his company continues to evolve, I’m sure his practices will take shape as well.

    Thanks!

  • Perhaps you should do a bit more research. You continued to bring up the negative impacts their model could have on local economies, even after someone brought up the fact that TOMS partners with WV & CI to ensure that very thing doesn’t happen. TOMS doesn’t do this alone, and by utilizing “giving partners” they strive to avoid affecting, in a negative manner, the communities in which shoes are distributed. This simply sounds like a hit piece against the “fad” that you deem TOMS to be. Since when did TOMS market themselves as the one and only charitable organization in which we should all participate? Americans like to shop, and for the most part, Americans can afford a $50 pair of shoes. TOMS decided to utilize this market as a way to give as well (why are they at fault for their profit margin?). Again, they aren’t marketing themselves as not for profit organization, and any person who purchases TOMS under that premise needs to do their own research, but that shouldn’t reflect poorly on TOMS. You’re comparing apples and oranges with this article.

  • I don’t really ever do this, but reading this post made me extremely angry. I get it, consumerism, over priced shoes, all that bad stuff. But what is so wrong with supporting your company? People LOVE toms shoes, in case you haven’t noticed, they sell like crazy.
    TOMS have set the price that high because guess what, people buy them. Not only that, a lot of people buy them. So, yeah, a high shoe price would pay for that plane ride.

    Additionally, you have no facts, you have nothing to support your argument. I am part of the Arlington Academy of Hope club at my school and they do some work with Toms shoes. And guess what. Children who wouldn’t receive shoes until their teens are getting them as toddlers. “All of their chances of making a living are wiped out”; this is just wrong. These people have no. freaking. shoes. They walk up to 8 miles to go to school and get horrible, horrible foot infections. I just don’t think that by posting this you’ve really helped anything. You’re insulting Toms shoes, but have you really accomplished anything? Even though this company may be “masquerading charity”, it’s working. There’s not much else to it, it just works.
    I own TOMS shoes, and just because I bought them doesn’t mean I feel like I’ve done my part and that’s that we can all go home happy. Think of it this way: As a consumer, I have the choice between two pairs of shoes with a similar style. Forever 21 made-in-China espadrilles, or $44 dollar TOMS. I will save up for those TOMS because I look at the tag and guess what I see: two for one. Not two for me, but in making this economic decision I have helped a Ugandan child’s trip to school a little less cumbersome. And that is something I can feel a little bit good about. It doesn’t stop there for anyone, but there are other ways of looking at this situation. If you consider that the market is already there, then TOMS has just changed the market so that it doesn’t just benefit the company, (which is probably the case with the shirt on your back and the laptop you’re staring at). These people have done something and it’s actually pretty brilliant! They’ve completely captured and controlled a market so that it doubles as a charity project. That is so much more admirable than rant blogging about annoying nuances in a charity/shoe brand, don’t you think?
    This is not a troll post. Please just think before you blog, or at least do some research. I’m sure you’re a nice person off-internet. Thank you for your time and feel free to comment, I would be interested in what anyone has to say.
    -T

  • So you admitted above that the thoughts in here are entirely your own? Do you believe that people really are doing bad by spending thousands of dollars and hours of their time to fly out to these communities and give them these shoes. If there were no people going over there to give them aid, they would not have the necessities or the human interaction between classes. Furthermore, these communities are not just randomly chosen, they are found and presented the oppurtunity to have these people come in. I do wear Toms, but I am not buying them for the style, I do believe that even this spending of money is a light of hope in our society that relies on big business and commercialized fashion. Thanks

  • Please turn your attention to the multitudes of efforts that avail no good in the world and lay off one that does. You said it: Scrooge. I mean really, in a culture steeped in complaint with little action finding something to criticize that actually puts shoes on poor kids…honestly.

  • Hello, my name is capitalism. You may have heard of me. I know you think I should go away, but places like the (former) Soviet Union and (current day) North Korea seem to have proven my usefulness in human society. I guess that’s why I’m a little puzzled at criticism leveled against an honest company that is making it possible for (1) Chinese people to have jobs; and (2) poor children to have shoes. Believe me…I would feel much better if I could just take a nice vacation (I’ve always wanted to see Tibet) and let rainbows, leprechauns and good intentions to feed and clothe the world. But until that happens, I guess I’ll stay on the job.

  • Just wrote a post that references TOMS in this light: http://willszal.tumblr.com/post/49455962014/regenerative-enterprise

  • “…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”

    You’re an idiot.

  • I am a firm believer in “every little bit helps.” I might not be teaching people a skill or trade that will benefit them in the long term or personally building/creating healthier conditions, schools, or shelter but I feel that even the smallest token of aid to people in need helps. If it means I am making their daily walk to work/school easier on their feet or donating to the creation of cleaner drinking water….either way I’m helping and making someone happier.

    Yes, buying toms isn’t going to save the world but…People in need aren’t going to turn away the help and tell us to put our money towards something better. I can imagine they will be happy with whatever they are provided with.

  • Don’t they sell footies some where? Cause my niece just got some and she got classic gray ones and she got a pack of 3 sets of footies. (I can’t remember where they are from.)

  • I want you to write your next article about kiva, and the 22% loans. Micro loans at pay day lending rates only further your article. Most people don’t realize that a 22 percent loan outstanding balance doubles in less than four years. read the terms on the collection of these loans, who is doing it? The Leander may not ask for payback, but that does equal a forgiven loan.

  • You seem to indicate that consumerism is both the a) solution to poorer countries and b) the problem with well developed countries. In addition you are making the assumption that people are buying TOMS for their charitable purpose rather than for their stylistic appeal. It seems more likely the case that high schoolers/college kids would be buying them for their looks.

    I do agree with the notion that Shoe Drops would put downward pressure on shoe prices in the region where this was dropped; hurting shoe producers (though perhaps the benefits of specialization would lead you to believe that china really should be making all the shoes?). But to fully appreciate the benefit of this you should weigh the long term economic benefit of people having shoes with the negative impact on the shoe industry. Indeed micro loans coupled with financial education would be the best form of aid, but that provides for a much less sexy marketing campaign.

    Economic and social aid is more complicated than this blog/rant may suggest.

  • “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.”

    First off, there is no “we” here–you’re referring to completely different actors. One can hope there are some people working on economic development, but those are totally separate from corporate programs like those conducted by TOMS. TOMS is not the history of western civilization (imperialism)–it’s a group of privileged people trying to exercise a responsibility to help those less fortunate.

    Second, no form of aid is sustainable. It’s aid. I don’t think they signed up to be part of a World Bank development plan.

    Third, “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.”

    It is poor form to write an this article and talk about “potential”. Is there any evidence of this? Are there at least local producers who are being affected? There’s no need to speculate–either it’s happening or it isn’t. It just requires research.

    The last paragraph contributes nothing to your argument but reveals your motivation: no matter how much good it produces, a for-profit company with high margins is bad.

  • This article seems to be written by someone who has had shoes all his life. Ever since I was a child I traveled to my family’s home country of the Dominican Republic with half my luggage full of clothes to give to people. It was not poverty tourism, but rather that my parents wanted to instill in me empathy for those less fortunate. From my first hand experience when you give someone a shirt who is shirtless, or shoes when they have none, they do not see it as economic imperialism but rather kindness.

  • People like the idea of helping others, in their mind they buy TOMS and someone in a 3rd world is getting a pair of shoes. When other people see them wearing them the same thought comes to mind or through a conversation. Yes, TOMS is it for Profit and they have excelled in this area, by making people feel good by thinking they are helping.
    The money people TEXT to Haiti or any other disasters to the cell phone carrier “Text $10.00″ . That cell phone carrier by the time it is received by the people who need it most is around 10%. So, there are several different hands in the pot before being given. Because they are all for profit. Just like TOMS.
    Lastly, look at Halliburton, they are making 40-50% profit off our own tax dollars taking care of the military. Read up on them and the other companies own by them (KBR is one), I would like to see you do a article on Halliburton… look see what was paid during dessert storm compared to the war now. also see who owns Halliburton and when he was in office when the landed the contract with the gov’t.
    Thanks for listening…

  • Wow that was a thought provoking article. I actually bought a pair of Toms sunglasses last week (the one-for-one with sunglasses is that for each pair they sell they will pay for surgery, treatment or prescription glasses for someone) so I just spent awhile seeing if I got suckered (sorry this comment turned out super long but looking into the company was way more interesting than I expected).

    First of all to be blunt I don’t think the piece is terribly well researched. Just one small example is that author says the donated shoes are “made in China, to be exact”. But in the annual Toms Giving Report it clearly says they’re also made in Argentina and Ethiopia. With both factories built by and employing locals (not just in production but also in distribution). It all sort of makes me doubt the numbers in regards to costs that she throws around.

    Well it’s also not as if Toms is actually a pure form of the Western here’s-exactly-how-we-will-save-you imperialist charity that she makes it out to be. The lack of shoes in many places has a quantifiable negative impact on health. Toms (short for Shoes for a Better Tomorrow) identified an actual unmet worldwide need that, if filled, would improve a lot of lives. It’s the same with the vision program they recently started; 80% of blindness in developing countries is preventable. And the way they’re impacting these communities isn’t just showing up unannounced with American tourists in trucks (the author falsely assumes this is so). For the shoe program they partner with community-based organizations to decide on types, materials, sizes, etc of the shoes Toms manufactures. These organizations then do the actual distribution and allocations, and the local organizations tie this to “their broader programs such as health checkups, distribution of medicine and vaccines, microfinance programs, youth leadership activities, school support and vocational training.” These non-imperialist aspects are quite overlooked in the piece.

    But where I think her argument against Toms hinges is on the fact that this kind of charity isn’t sustainable. She writes, “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.” I think that’s a pretty narrow outlook. The fact that I bought Toms sunglasses wasn’t because it’s in style. Instead it’s because I’m voting with my dollars. I was going to get a pair of shades anyways, and when I saw Toms was an option, I specifically chose to put my money into the hands of a company who would use it to make the world a better place. Even the the trends of sunglasses or shoes shifts away from Toms, the broader idea is that consumers can choose to support companies that considerately and positively impact the world.

    This means that Toms does not “represent consumerism masquerading as charity” as she claims, but instead it’s just socially responsible consumerism. Especially after spending this morning reading about Toms, I have no regrets about purchasing one of their products.

  • I agree with this post. I never jumped on the “TOMS Bandwagon” because the shoes were terrible. If they really wanted to help out, they should have people donate money to “TOMS” and TOMS uses the money to feed the homeless, or bring medicine or education to countries that have none.

  • I don’t think Tom’s is trying to be a charity but rather a shoe company with the charity side as a perk. If anybody buys Tom’s just because they give shoes to children in need then that person is misguided and better off just handing money to a place that is just a plain charity. Further more, shoes have high profit margins, point blank, welcome to the shoe business. All shoe company’s have high profit margins and Tom’s is right in line price wise with other comparable shoes. Considering all the overhead involved with running business a product needs to have high enough margins. Considering salaries, distribution, an online website (and in store presence), warehouse, offices, countless other expenses, and of course the charity side takes a lot of money. I bet if we saw Tom’s bottom line of profit it wouldn’t be as big as we all think. I mean hey, Tom’s could just be another shoe company that sells shoes and that’s it. But isn’t it AWESOME that instead they also decided that AS A SHOE COMPANY the want to do their part in helping those in need (not “handouts” persae) and give shoes to those in need because after all, that is their business. Sure there are better ways to help people in poor nations but Tom’s isn’t equipped with the tools to help “develop a healthy economy” so as a shoe company shouldn’t they do what they know best? Bottom line is nobody is forcing Tom’s to do anything, they choose to. At least they’re doing something, they could be doing nothing and just be strictly a corporate shoe company, and guess what? Nobody would criticize them, it’s sad that they are ONLY being criticized FOR GIVING to people in need. IF they didn’t have a one for one program, nobody would say a word.

  • Naomi- I appreciate journalism, however, journalism that is backed by facts and research. It seems that as I read through comments you stated: “I had an interesting conversation with a TOMS employee yesterday. Apparently the shoes they give out in developing countries are a different model than the ones sold in the U.S. They are wider, since people who grew up barefoot have wider feet, and they have thicker soles, so that they don’t wear out as fast. I’m still not on board with TOMS’ approach to development work… but I am encouraged to know that they take into account the living situations of the people to whom they give shoes.”

    You should REALLY do some research on their model before you write an article that rips a company apart. Do you know their profit margins? A lot of companies are “for-profit” because of the tax difference. If you have not done simple research such as looking into the material that it costs to make the shoe, or how they actually make them yet make an assumption that the shoes cost “$5.00″ is just bad journalism. Write another article when you have actually done your homework.

  • I am lucky enough to consult for TOMS on improving their supply chain and I have to say that TOMS is a wonderful company.

    In addition to being completely wrong about “Shoe Drops” (the shoes that are given are not 5$, very few TOMS employees get to participate, and when they do they never say they are from TOMS, it’s about awareness, not tourisim), this article doesn’t highlight is that TOMS is opening local manufactuers (Ethiopia, just opened in Kenya) which they purchase all the machinery to enable the factory to be successful enough to manufacturer for other companies – creating jobs for the local community. Also, most of the kids that receive the TOMS shoes cannot afford shoes, period. Even if the local mom/pop shop makes shoes to sell, the kids in that area would still be barefoot. I’m not a TOMS employee but through learning about their supply chain, I feel like I have to defend them vs a “Down with American Imperialism” blog post where the writer definitely didn’t take the time to talk to anyone that knows about the TOMS business.

  • This article sounds like it was written by a naïve, goody-too-shoes, the world can be unicorns and rainbows type of person.

    The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the intentions are. Every little bit helps. There are people in Africa, Asia, etc. who have no shoes, and I’m sure they’re glad and ecstatic to receive a pair – FOR FREE. If I lived in poverty, I would really appreciate the gesture too, regardless if a company was just using me to boost their charitable image.

    What if Bill Gates donates $100 million to set up a charity in Africa? But in the back of his head, he’s thinking “Haha the stupid media will eat this up! I can give a rat’s @ss about the starving children in Africa. Little bastards. People will love me when they hear about this”. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the INTENT is anymore. If people were helped in the end, then they were helped!

    If I give a homeless man $5 just so he would get away from me, is that a nice or bad gesture?

    Don’t be such a hippy.

  • I agree with the gist of the article, I have always had a beef with the American consumer wanting to blindly buy anything that makes them feel good about their purchase. I have been in aggressive debates with friends about what I call “selling feel good.”

    See also “Fair Trade.” Because apparently artificially increasing the price of American selected commodities within selected markets in selected countries, and even down to selected families is apparently charity now and considered a good thing, even if it totally screws up the local economy. Free trade = evil? What is market price?!!?

    I am not sure if this was previously mentioned, but my major issue with your article is the blind assumption that $5 was the cost of a pair of TOMS. Was there evidence to back this up? I agree if you were to give a good swag of an Ace bandage over a small pad made overseas it would probably run about that, but were there numbers behind this estimate?

  • I concur with the author. It seems like a form of conspicuous consumption to show off that you are altruistic, have the money and trendy.

  • Naomi, just who are you that you are so opinionated? I’d be curious to see what your personal template is. That said, I buy Toms for my 7 year old great granddaughters because they like them.

    I find your opening article about handouts instead of help and bringing in products that could be handled locally. Sounds like all the give away programs, food banks etc in the American poor communities. Oprahs school in Africa. We can find fault everywhere. The point is Toms gets people to thinking about the shortage of shoes in other countries. As far as the cost of things in reality, you have a computer, I’ll bet an iphone, wear name brand sneakers and clothing, etc. Check out the source of your cosmetics.

  • I have a few issues with this article. Just to state up front, I don’t wear TOMS shoes, they are not my style. I do however , work for a non profit that receives 57,000 pairs of TOMS every year to distribute to kids in our Haiti programs. In the last year, I have been able to hire 16 staff to help me distribute these shoes. I have never once seen anybody from TOMS come on a distribution. So I can can tell you they do not take “poverty safari’s” to deliver their shoes. They supply a large network of non profit organizations who distribute the shoes in their respected areas. They empower NGO’s with a tool to help more people.

    As to your comment on wrecking already established entrepreneurs. You have obviously not traveled much in the 3rd world. Of the more than 200,000 children our organization feed and helps educate on a daily basis in 13 countries, I would say less than 40% of them can afford shoes. This causes them to walk barefoot, which in turn causes them to get cuts and infections, which leads to things like AIDS and other deadly diseases entering their bodies. I have seen and treated many kids who end up getting amputations, AIDS, Ecoli, pin worm, and a multitude of other junk, from the lack of shoes. And trust me little Johnny Shoe maker cant make enough pairs of shoes for all the kids in these communities, particularly the rural ones.
    So you can either put shoes on the feet of 200,000 potential future entrepreneurs, who will get a full education and be able to stay in school, or you let them die off, miss school, and have physical deformaties for the rest of their lives.

    Oh yeah, forgot to mention, not only does TOMS give us tens of thousands of shoes, they also pay for shipping to whatever coutry we will distribute them in and they pay for all the on ground distribution costs (which alows us to create more jobs in a community).

    • Hi Dan,
      In some cases, they do allow people who purchase TOMS to come on shoe drops (you can read more about that here: http://tomsshoedrop.blogspot.com/). You are correct in assuming that I have not traveled much in the developing world. Please know that before writing this article, I spoke to many friends who have worked in the developing world, though.
      I am glad to hear that you and your organization have had a good experience with shoe delivery from TOMS.

  • Dan,

    You’ve obviously got better insight with regards to international aide, but I tend to lean more with Naomi’s point of view.

    My hold up is that while donating shoes may eliminate some of the problems you mentioned, but what if TOM’s do fad out? What then? 57,000 kids’ shoes wear out and they’re left in the same predicament they were prior to the shoes.

    Let’s follow Naomi’s assumption that it cost $5 to produce a pair of TOM’s. Take the 10m shoes that they’ve donated so far, that’s $50M that could be spent in developing countries to train and equip the community to attack the problem rather than the symptoms.

    I think it’s a great initiative, but seems to be unsustainable and ineffective.

  • I think this is a very important conversation, and I applaud the author for bringing this topic into the homes of many.

    I am a business student at the Catholic University of America. I have studied many non-profit, and socially responsible business models, as this is a focus of the CUA business school.

    Personally, I am completely infatuated by charity: water and their new take on non-profit. Any “fault” you find in TOMS business model, charity: water has an answer.

    With that said, TOMS is an incredibly inspiring organization that is focused on the human person, on a worldwide scale. I agree that they should be producing shoes in the countries they give to; but as far as profits go, I cannot criticize. It is an amazingly noble vocation to start a for profit business, especially one that focuses so intently on improving the lives of its employees, customers, and shareholders.

    In a perfect world, every business would have this intent focus on our human brother so that a non-profit is no longer necessary.

    Once again, I would like to thank the author of this article for bringing about this very important discussion. Rock on

  • Decent article, however I was hoping to find information regarding a rumor of child labor production in Argentina.

    Although you make many good points, I must propose the primary accomplishment of TOMS which is not mentioned in your criticism. The type of consumer who purchases a One-For-One product and has a glorious sense of ethical-consumer pride IS NOT a philanthropist. These are not the types of people who are making any substantial financial donations or allotting significant time for volunteering. Therefore, TOMS is milking the segment of consumers who want to promote positive change so long as it doesn’t come at the cost of their inconvenience or outright expense without reward.

    Basically, TOMS transforms mindless consumers into modest charitable donors…not exactly changing the world, but nothing cynical either.

    Thanks for the article!
    Drew_

  • I agree with the profit margin. I do not agree with the statement of all the shoes being imported from China. I am not sure about the other styles because I have not researched it but I know that the ‘Nepal boots’ that TOMS recently came out with is actually manufactured in Nepal, and they are doing a huge community outreach program to prepare the new generation with education, self awareness and leadership skills to be a contributing member of society as adults. Not only this but TOMS also partners with other organizations such as Magic Bus (in Nepal) which started operating in 1999 to ensure that they are readying the young population of Nepal with everything they need to succeed. I’m no expert (I am 18 and am looking for opportunities to have a better cross-cultural understanding of the world) but that sounds pretty damn good and not much like American imperialism…

    • Hi Amy,
      Thank you for your comment! When I wrote this article two years ago, TOMS had not yet begun manufacturing shoes in the countries where they distribute them. So, I think your point is valid, but keep in mind that this article is two years old.

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