Some bad news about TOMS shoes

By John Favini

John Favini is an undergraduate student seeking a degree in International Affairs at Lafayette College. His studies focus on Development and the African continent. He was a participant in American University’s Washington Semester Program on Islam and World Affairs, and is currently participating in CIEE’s Language and Culture program in Dakar, Senegal. This was originally posted on John’s blog.

Just about every twenty-something knows the name. You can spot TOMS shoes on college campuses across the country, often sported by young, socially minded students.

The founding idea, a buy-one-give-one promise, captures the hearts of that young idealistic demographic quite well, satisfying its two greatest cravings simultaneously– one, the desire to feel a part of change (preferably without trying very hard), and two, the desire to, well… look cool. So successful has the company been that it recently sold its two millionth pair, making it at least a 100 million dollar enterprise.

I’ll admit it. I too once donned a pair of grey TOMS cordones every morning, and felt rather smug as I slipped my toes into the little cloth shoe, imaging my improvised counterpart in some distant, developing nation doing the same.

However it has become clear as of late that while the company can certainly craft a stylish shoe, their proficiency in the aid realm is a bit lacking. Actually, to speak frankly, it’s downright detrimental.

The argument against TOMS is threefold.

First, the TOMS model is incredibly inefficient. On the website, TOMS justifies its battle against shoelessness largely from a public health perspective, with their thin cloth shoe sufficing as a barrier between the feet of young children and the many parasites and infections they might incur from the ground below. Perhaps the greatest threat they tolerate by walking barefoot is hookworm, a tiny yet ferocious parasite that is transmitted by walking through the fecal matter of an infected human being.

While TOMS shoes can certainly be considered a solution to this endemic, there are a number of more effective alternatives. A former Peace Corps volunteer and blogger illustrates this point quite well through a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine there is a school of 1,000 students in rural developing anywhere. Hookworm and infections are common among the population, as the students must walk through an area some in the community have begun to use as a latrine. Assuming each pair of shoes is about a $27 value (half the cost of the average buy-one-give-one TOMS shoe), you can give each child a pair for $27,000, a fix that would likely prevent any continued hookworm incidence for the next two years until the shoes inevitably wear out (that’s a generous time frame).

Alternatively, if this money was instead donated to a local public health organization, cement latrine facilities could be built near by for an estimated cost of $2,000. In essence with the same funds ($27,000) one could temporary postpone hookworm incidence for two years in one community, or eradicate them for decades in 13.

Second, the buy-one-give-one model is an archetype for that classic aid mistake of giving fish, rather than training fisherman. While TOMS gives shoes in over 50 countries, their products are made only in Argentina, Ethiopia and China. That means in most the communities they give, their “shoe drops” constitute an economic bomb to any local industry that may have existed prior to the introduction of free international shoes.

That is no scare tactic. This pattern of aid crushing local industry is well documented. One startling example is a 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.

Poverty in Africa is a consequence of a general economic stagnation. Giving of any kind targets the symptom, not the disease. A more effective alternative would be to support local business by selling locally made shoes internationally, rather than bringing free ones into the community. Check out Nisolo Shoes, a company that is doing just that – selling the hand made leather shoes of Peruvian craftsmen and women to the American public.

A third and final complaint, is more of a moral objection, rather a theoretical aid practicum problem. TOMS and its founder Blake Mycoskie, have been accused recently of favoring evangelical groups as giving partners, and even distributing shoes more frequently to Christian children. While the TOMS website says specifically that no preference is given to any particular religion, a number of TOMS giving partners have been found only giving shoes before and after services at local churches.

For example, the missionaries working for one giving partner, Bridge to Rwanda, distributed some 6,000 shoes to a number of students at schools in that nation. They gave to 50 schools within one Anglican diocese, only delivering TOMS to one school outside that Christian network.

So for you committed TOMS supporters, is there any hope remaining for the organization? Any redemption? Maybe a little.

For one, while TOMS is certainly not an effective public health policy as far as bang for your buck, it is likely receiving money from people who might otherwise never donate to charities with more efficient means of combating hookworm and similar illnesses. In a sense, their creativity in marketing and ability to expand the donor base gives them some redemption.

Second, its new sunglasses program steers a bit away from the buy-one-give-one model, and instead promises only that the money from your purchase will go to help administer proper eye care and medical examinations in the developing world. The program seems a bit too new to make any substantive evaluations, but at least on face value it appears to be, if nothing else, a harmless venture.

However, while I am naturally an optimist, I have to admit I can’t see TOMS being anything but bad for the developing world, and how the West perceives it. The organization has White Man’s Burden written all over it.

My advice? Stop buying TOMS shoes. There are far better ways to help the developing world, and a number of shoe companies that can make you look (almost) as cool.

If you miss the feeling of people knowing you care about “the world” as you trod around campus, do what I did… start a blog (and shamelessly self-promote).

Some good places to check if you want more info:

Good Intentions Are Not Enough: aid commentator and leader of an anti-TOMS movement

Tiny Spark: a podcast concerning TOMS

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26 Comments to “Some bad news about TOMS shoes”

  1. […] encouraged some powerful secular NGOs to partner with them. Many respected organisations, including TOMS Shoes and charity: water, often deliver their products and services exclusively to the select poor […]

  2. […] Two years ago I bought 2 pairs of TOMS shoes are wore them proudly around town and campus. They are easy, simple and fun. My only issue with the design is that they make my feet sweat and therefore get stinky fast. But as I began to learn more about TOMS and their business model I quickly became sceptical of their operations (check out this article!) […]

  3. […] Depot leading the industry in trying to reverse deforestation. But some companies, like TOMS, are not as sustainable as they claim to be. Although I’m mainly going to focus on environmental issues, I’m […]

  4. […] Some alternatives have sprung up to combat this cynical viewpoint, such as the Buy 1 Give 1 model, but certain applications of even this seemingly altruistic process have run into criticism. Heard of TOMS shoes? […]

  5. Mitchel says:

    John calling yourself an optimist is an insult to actual optimists. Your just another irrational idealist looking to feed your intellectual ego.

  6. Mitchel says:

    The reason their “local ” economies are stagnant is because the people are too poor to afford shoes; hence why we are giving them “free” shoes. Toms wont change the worlds problems(economies etc) but atleast it will put shoes on a childrens feet. Whether a donation is 1 or 100 dollars it is the intention of giving that counts.

  7. Aaron g says:

    I suggest you contact the company if you are seeking real change. Recommending boycotting of a company that is trying to do real good for this world Is a bit misguided. You have some great points that they could be more efficient. But working with the company rather than against it would give you much better solutions. Claiming to be an optimist yet asking for a boycott on a company? You do not offer much in the way of an alternative. People are going to buy shoe regardless of if they are helping this world or not. I know I personally prefer to buy from companies that actually care. and in the shoe industry, where labor rights are a major issue, there are few choices. Toms has helped create a movement, one that I believe Patagonia first embodied, and that is selling items in which profit is not the bottom line. Nike, reebok, converse, all sell expensive shoes. Ones in which they pay very little for and may a huge amount of profit. People buy them for the style at a high price tag. But when people walk down the street in those shoes do people start a conversation on a new business model of giving back? most likely not.
    And the end of the day the conversation is the most important part. That is where change comes from. And I believe Toms has really spur on a great conversation on how we can make this new business model work for everyone involved. I really enjoy your point that giving by itself does not change people, but giving someone the tools to help themselves does create a lasting change. Toms has that potential. With SO many companies out there with truly damaging business models attacking a company because you think it doesn’t do ENOUGH is not optimism. Again working with Toms and suggesting to them better ways to utilize their business model would be far more beneficial. I think a boycott literally just sets us back.
    I look up to company’s that are able to change the way we due business. More so for those involved with environmental causes, but all causes have benefits. I do commend you for helping to create a good conversation. I also enjoyed some of the responses. Hopefully we all learn from this and spend some time thinking how we can help change the world for the better. Change really does start with us as individuals. I would suggest you re-direct your boycott campaign to those company’s that are truly hurting our society and the world as a whole…there are plenty.

  8. Lee Wild says:

    I work for an aid organisation in Zanzibar and work in a school where TOMs was distributed. The shoes barely lasted three months and the money used to distribute the shoes would be much better spent helping those children receive a proper education. The classrooms contain over 80 students and the teachers rarely show up. They have to take a national exam in year 10 and 12 in English and if they do not pass they cannot continue with their education. The pass rate is below 2%. The teachers that teach English have no background in English whatsoever. To become a teacher you don’t even have to have made it to high school. TOMs shoes are not helping poverty in any way and I can say that because I’ve seen it first hand. As many people said the best thing TOMs could be doing is investing in education and skill building. Please people educate yourselves before you start throwing your opinions around as facts. Is giving out free shoes sustainable? No its not. Long term how is that going to help any of these children? Give a man a fish he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime. All these article is trying to say is there is much better ways to help develop community rather than hand out free stuff to people. Also not for profit just means people outside of the business cant make money of it doesn’t mean the employees of that company cant be making millions of dollars themselves. Finally if you care so much about this issue find an avenue to positively use it rather than attacking others.

  9. Yasser says:

    All that… Plus, their customer service is the worst on the planet, at least within North American companies’. I bought a pair online and chose to return them because their colour didn’t turn out like I wanted it to be. They gave me a real hard time; their online chat link is dead, and the customer service reps on the phone will leave you frustrated and angry at the end of the call. The only responsive way to communicate with them is through Twitter, but that isn’t so much convenient either.
    I honestly wish I read this article earlier.

  10. […] brand of songs, clothing, and churches is acceptable. Or a corporation masquerading as a charity, like TOMS shoes, that make consumers feel good about their purchases, while perpetuating the Western savior […]

  11. […] As popular as they have become, there may be reason to pause before buying your next pair of TOMS shoes. John Favini presents three arguments against TOMS.  […]

  12. Giselle says:

    Oh dear! This is really a sad news! I have read an article about the ONE DAY ONE SHOES campaign of TOMS. This company is really good. I hope they can get through this. :(

  13. […] what of the Buy One Give One model, much maligned? There have been two main critiques of Tom’s Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes for each […]

  14. […] run through a series of emotions.  First I’m sad that no one appreciates my views about how TOMS is totally not helping children in Africa.  Then I’m annoyed. Seriously, what kind of friends don’t care about how TOMS is […]

  15. Laura says:

    A really interesting read, thank you! I linked to your article in my most recent blog post, here: http://www.samcharlie.com/blog/2014/4/24/toms-and-turning-twenty-two

  16. […] and india and ethiopia to make adorably exotic trinkets and grow coffee beans and cocoa and we can buy toms and shoe a shoeless child; we can save them by injecting billions of dollars into their economies by giving them the big […]

  17. […] is the extremely popular “Buy One Give One” aid model of TOMS Shoes. John Favini, on whydev.org, makes the valid point that TOMS has primarily found success because it manages to capture the […]

  18. […] fishing, than hand them a fish for their dinner. Check out these articles by Djibouti Jones and WhyDev to learn […]

  19. […] the aid realm is a bit lacking. Actually, to speak frankly, it’s downright detrimental,” blogged Lafayette College student John Favini for […]

  20. […] than just hand them a fish for their dinner. Check out these articles by Djibouti Jones and WhyDev to learn […]

  21. JOHN says:

    I really am not sure this is a legitimate company or not….. how can i find out???

  22. Thank you for another informative web site. The place else may just I
    am getting that kind of info written in such a perfect way?
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    been on the glance out for such info.

  23. This is a good article and it makes sense. It’s stupid to pay $50 for a pay of canvas shoes and hope half of it goes for shoe for a child in need. Seriously, $27 per kid will buy a lot more than shoes in developing countries. There are numerous other options of similar shoes for under $20 and then you can give a donation to an organization to improve sanitation, education, health, etc. rather than ship $25 pairs of shoes. Besides, there’s an organization called Soles 4 Souls who send donated shoes (used shoes but of better quality than Tom’s no doubt). Soles 4 Souls is a not-for-profit organization.

  24. […] “A 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes […]

  25. […] If you want to help–donate money to a world health organization, which can build proper latrines and put down cement, instead of buying a pair of TOMS shoes. […]

  26. […] There have been heaps of excellent blogs and articles written on problems with the TOMS model, on Why Dev, Kelsey Timmerman’s blog Where Am I Wearing, and a Tiny Spark podcast. Do a Google search and […]

  27. […] Start with: So you’re thinking of studying an MA in international studies? Think again and Some bad news about TOMS Shoes. […]

  28. […] critics charge that in-kind donation programs are an inefficient way of helping people in need compared to simply […]

  29. Kelsey says:

    I think what’s most important, from a child’s perspective, is the fact that they have shoes to run and play in. Freeing up a child’s mind, so they can be a child, may free up the mentality of an entire generation, and who knows, those not so solid, yet liberating Toms could contribute to the shaping of a diplomat or leader who could make some real difference. Because they didn’t have to worry about getting shoes, or because they were able to play (in shoes) that allowed them to be free-minded.

  30. John, I think you’re actually attacking a broken system of generosity more than TOMS as a company (which you do unsuccessfully). I don’t believe TOMS actually commits the errors of which you are accusing them.

    1. TOMS doesn’t give away the same shoes that we buy. The shoes they give are specifically designed/adapted for durability to the regions in which they are distributed http://www.toms.com/our-movement/l#giving-shoes . Also, I understand your argument concerning better use of funding, but the issue is much more complex than you are making it. Further, the provision of shoes is about much more than disease prevention. Many areas require shoes as a part of their school uniform. Thus, it is also about education and other issues http://www.toms.com/our-movement/l#why-give-shoes .

    2. TOMS researches the areas to which they give in order to cause minimal economic impact on local textile industries http://www.toms.com/our-movement/l#how-toms-give-shoes . If TOMS is causing economic bombs to go off all over the place, it is interesting that you are unable to site a single example and have to resort to using a five year old clothing example from Africa. The majority of their shoes are distributed to people who own no shoes and are not buying shoes…therefore they are not taking away income from local shoe makers. Many of these communities have no local shoe makers.

    3. Concerning a bias toward “Christian” partnerships…I imagine that TOMS partners with the organizations seeking to partner with them and they are unable to help if the majority of these organizations are “Christian” (on either side of the ocean). The accusation that this is intentional on TOMS behalf is complete speculation.

    Primarily, I think your article is poorly researched concerning TOMS. You have many valid points to make concerning errors made within charitable organizations, and I think you desired to make TOMS an example of your argument…which you didn’t actually do in a single instance. Instead, you resorted to hypothetical scenarios and examples from other companies. I appreciate the intent, but feel like you picked a bad target just because TOMS is an easily recognizable company.

    • Young says:

      can they really afford to do “buy-one-give-one” with the price we buy for? There are other copies of Toms shoes costs less. This means Toms can be manufactured for much less cost because they bulk produce in a bigger amount. Mass produce means less cost. Since they are probably contracted to produce a lot more than any other brand that produces similar product means they can make them cheaper. I don’t know how and what they produce these shoes with but I still think they are too costly. Even if I am paying for two[one for myself and the other pair to be sent out]

      they way promoting their brand seems like they are using good cause for their great profit for themselves. You see pictures of the make of Tom’s giving shoes to the kids. I wonder how they really distribute those donation shoes. Feels like Mr. Tom takes First class flight, Five star hotel to go to places necessary to donate the shoes. So what are we really encouraging? Are we really giving money to give shoes? or giving money to a company to grow. I want company such to grow but I just think they can do more. If the cost of the shoes were greatly cheaper than any other than more can style it and help.

  31. Andrew Owlsby says:

    The big assumption in this article is that people buy toms because of the buy one give one program. Literally no one actually cares about that. People buy shoes for a million reasons. How efficiently the company uses the proceeds towards charity is not one of them. If anything, it might register as a tiny perk that never gets thought of again. But it’s not WHY someone bought the shoe.

  32. Amy ross says:

    There are MANY types of infection that can be accumulated by the feet.
    Every bit of help is more help than before!

  33. sue says:

    Why do people have to knock those who try to do something good in this world? I would like to see more people aid those in our country before reaching outside; but helping someone is helping someone. Keep sitting on your butt and criticizing. the rest of us will change the world, one person at a time.

  34. […] Written in response to this post: http://www.whydev.org/some-bad-news-about-toms-shoes/ […]

  35. I hope we at GreenMicrofinance have it right…please read article on Holy Poop and Noah’s Arc! http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2013/10/noahs_ark_inspires_a_new_tale.html Maybe TOMS would like to join us in expanding biolatrines in Africa. http://www.greenmicrofinance.com

  36. […] pass onto all your friends who think they are doing good: 1, 2, 3, […]

  37. […] it’s not just business people who see a need to steer beyond the one-to-one business model, consumers too are pointing out the weaknesses. The same individuals that were originally compelled to purchase by the one-to-one model are […]

  38. […] alarm bells started to ring. Without rehashing tried and tested arguments, we know that there is so much evidence about the negative impact of used clothing donations in poor countries. In fact, as […]

  39. Ben Dover says:

    I just buy the shoes because I like them.. and its a bonus if they do the one-for-one

  40. rob says:

    It is vital that original and innovative models for providing “aid” are challenged, critiqued and discussed as you have aimed to do in your article. Awareness of developing communities, and subsequently interaction with these communities, has undoubtedly increased significantly amongst Western middle classes in recent years. The original rise and popularity of TOMS is possibly closely related to the increased likelihood of young Westerners to go travelling or take a gap year. The consequences of this closer relationship, acknowledging the relationship’s disputable depth, are far from entirely positive and require careful evaluation and, in some cases, significant action in order to prevent short and long term harm and damage. Despite this I feel that, having read your article, the TOMS model stands up to scrutiny much better than many of the dubious ways in which the relationship between young, middle class Westerners and the developing world has evolved in recent years.

    As with any business or charity, marketing is key to the success of TOMS. As explained in your first argument TOMS promote the fact that their primary reason for providing footwear is to combat the significant health issues associated with not having shoes. This is a clear and understandable marketing message that can be conveyed with ease to any potential customers who may not have the time or inclination to learn about the other significant problems living life without footwear may cause. Your article attempts to analyse the benefit of providing a community with footwear in an extremely narrow, short term and quantitative manner. Temporarily deviating from the debate relating to the health benefits derived from wearing footwear, there are multiple other clear and significant benefits. Although these benefits will differ according to the social structure and character of each respective community in which footwear may be distributed, two are particularly obvious.

    Firstly, for many of the individuals in the communities in which TOMS work, access to vehicles is limited. Be it due to the remoteness of their location or economic hardship, walking to school, hospital or even work is the only option. Although it is not as quantifiable as the exact cost of a latrine, there is little doubt that participation in education, access to healthcare and the potential of finding employment will all be significantly improved with a pair of shoes. TOMS may not be teaching a man to fish but they are certainly providing him with a rod. Secondly, the provision of essential items, such as footwear, will also have a substantial impact upon improving equality and social mobility within a community. Especially where children are concerned, a lack of footwear is an extremely obvious indicator of social and economic class. Just as a person’s features may indicate their caste or tribal grouping, leading to severe social prejudice, an individual’s lack of footwear displays their economic standing with a stark clarity that is almost incomparable.

    Returning to the issue of healthcare, TOMS are a footwear company; they are likely to be extremely good at producing very cost effective footwear and possibly not as good at installing public health infrastructure. They are in a unique position to provide footwear, as it is their area of expertise; it is link that catches the attention of the buying public. As previously alluded to, comparing providing footwear to a community to providing latrines is, in this scenario, irrelevant. If the promotional message of TOMS was simply that they donate to a public health NGO for every pair of shoes sold, there is no way their message would resonate with their potential customers. There would be no footwear or latrines. The provision of footwear to a community may not be as effective in preventing hookworm as providing a latrine would be, but it is certainly better than nothing at all. It is also worth mentioning the health benefits that footwear can provide that are not covered by latrines, such as preventing general infections, cuts and injuries.

    It is also unsuitable to compare the distribution of TOMS to mass “clothing donations” in Africa. If a person cannot afford to buy shoes they are not a potential customer for local retailers. If TOMS are providing shoes to many people who can clearly afford shoes then I concede they are behaving in a fraudulent and unethical manner. I do not think, however, that you are making this accusation. This is very different to the example you cite in Africa where people were given clothes when they could afford to buy them. The distribution of TOMs should not harm local footwear retailers, I have not read or seen any evidence that suggests otherwise.

    I recognise that there may be a grey area, where it is debatable whether or not an individual given a pair of shoes could afford them or not. In this scenario I still have no problem whatsoever with the manner in which TOMS operate. If a family can afford to buy extra food, school books or medical supplies, as they do not have to pay for their children’s shoes, this can only be positive and beneficial. The extra money will, in the vast majority of cases, be spent within the local economy. It will not be spent on summer trips abroad or investments in foreign trust funds. Even if my evaluations are wholly misguided and TOMS are restricting the sale of footwear in the developing world, I do not at all accept your notion that the alternative to this would be that local manufacturers would be thriving. Goods, such as cheap cost footwear, that are both produced and sold within the developing world demand the absolute lowest manufacturing costs possible. Such pressures can result in extremely poor working conditions and a narrow-minded drive to benefit from economies of scale. From a macro perspective this can drive rural-urban migration and lead to a spiral of overcrowding and an unlimited number of environmental issues.

    Closely related to this point, you suggest an alternative to TOMS would be for Western consumers to purchase footwear made locally in poor and deprived communities. I would be fully supportive of this model which could be operated concurrently to TOMS with no conflict or contradiction at all. The model would only have any form of impact, however, if the goods were able to be marketed successfully to consumers, which is by no means easy. Should a particular product global success of the same magnitude as TOMS it is likely that the business would simply grow to be a mainstream manufacturing business with the associated positive and negative characteristics. This is not an original aid model but simply free trade. Should you be suggesting production could be kept local and socially considerate through a Fair Trade model, I would argue this does not have the potential of the TOMS model, primarily due to its weak marketing message. Where as Fair Trade appeals to a significant educated minority, the incredibly straightforward one for one message can be understood an bought into by the mainstream consumer.

    Where your points relating to Christian distributing partners are concerned your evidence appears to lack any depth and you have only been able to provide one example. The practicalities of delivering aid in impoverished areas are complex and partner organisations may not always operate exactly in the manner that their “donor” organisations have outlined that they should. If TOMS have a weakness in this area, it is clear problem that can be addressed; it is certainly not a flaw in their model. Secondly, religious organisations may be the most reliable, trustworthy and experienced within a given area, they may be able to distribute shoes in the most cost effective way possible and may be in the strongest position to identify which communities would benefit from a shoe drop and which would not. To prevent religious organisations from distributing TOMs simply because they have particular beliefs would be failing to see the bigger picture.

  41. Sara says:

    You have valid arguments, but by no means do you have any justification to tell people to stop buying TOMS…they cost the same as most other shoes and while there may be some flaws in the logic of TOMS giving, it’s still better than not giving at all

    • Sara, I think there is a big justification to stop buying TOMS. this kind of giving kills local economies. The textile industry in much of Africa has already been destroyed by the dumping of free clothes. how can local businesses that are employing people compete with aid agencies giving away the same product they try and sell . The result being that locals have free stuff and no jobs! TOMS needs to create employment in communities and sell great shoes to locals at affordable price using profits to create more jobs.

  42. Aaron Levy says:

    Isn’t there still, war, famine, homelessness and disease? Do we really need to criticize a company that makes a significant contribution to needy people through the efforts of those who otherwise wouldn’t give a damn? Why not write an article on the incredible evils of b.p. or halliburton? I have never owned a pair of Toms (need more rubber between me and the concrete), but at least they are trying. We should even praise an effort in a world where it is all to rare. Is this article sponsored by nike? Who rather than use their organization to do any good, are one of the more evil corporations today, openly using sweat shops and child labor. By the logic of this article, the article itself shouldn’t have been written, the author should be in Bangladesh or Mumbai working feverishly to save the lives of dying children. Every person is responsible for the way in which they choose to help others, but none have a right to criticize the method, one person is an artist, another volunteers at a hospital, while a third simply smiles at everyone they see. We cannot measure the results from our pro-social behavior, not really, all that matters is that we engage in pro-social behavior of any kind. Excelsior.

    • John Favini says:

      Hi Aaron,

      You have a few valid points.

      A wider context might make a denunciation of TOMS seem a bit- nip-picky. They are indeed trying, and for that, perhaps they do deserve some commendation.

      Also “pro-social” behavior should certainly be encouraged, and TOMS has indeed created a unique model to that end.

      However, I stand behind my article.

      For one, while I commend TOMS for their efforts, I continue to believe we can do better. Its really optimism that drove me to write this article, not a desire to condemn. “War, hunger, homelessness, and disease” will continue unabated as long as we are happy with any effort that is made in the contrary. Criticism is healthy, and perhaps starting with those closest to impactful work is our most efficient means of moving towards genuine progress.

      Second, while I am not sponsored by nike and recognize they often employ immoral business practices, I cannot see their model in such a simple lens to condemn them entirely. The income gained in those sweat shops, while we can agree it is certainly lower than what those working in them deserve, will serve the population far better than a pair of thin shoes, which will wear, and once they have leave only the hope for another delivery. That meager income is an investment in the economy of that country, however small, and thus infinitely more potent than a “gift” of the TOMS variety. While I am far from endorsing these sweat shops (which is why I mentioned Nisolo as a good alternative), one needs to recognize their contribution to what has been a miraculous economic rise of East and South East Asia over the last few decades.

      My point is TOMS would better serve the developing world if their shoes were made by the population they wished to help, rather than imported to them – a criticism they will never hear if we are too fond of their good intentions to consider how they might improve.

      Similarly they might never hear this point if, as you said, anyone wishing to evaluate the model need “be in Bangladesh or Mumbai working feverishly to save the lives of dying children” to justify their consideration. I simply wish to join in a conversation, one that seeks to improve the means through which we try to help the developing world. This debate is an imperative, something we owe to the people we hope to partner with and aid. Setting such a high bar for participation in this discussion only limits its participants- constituting a disservice to the population our development policies target.

      Put simply your argument, while convincing, lacks two colloquial truths-

      1) The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Trying, is not enough, and can actually make matters worse. I will not protect TOMS from condemnation simply because they are seeking to do good. I will join in the chorus of condemnation against war and homelessness, but am decidedly consistent, despite intent.

      2) Two heads are better than one. We need to criticize each other, question methods, and condemn what we find worthy of condemnation. Whether TOMS is better or worse than nike is unimportant really. What matters is that they can be better at all. As long as there is room for improvement, we should pursue it collectively and earnestly.

      Thanks for your note.

      John

  43. jennyvive says:

    I hate that I came own 3 pairs of Toms before I started educating myself of responsible giving. It is truly common sense, but you are so correct that its an instant “feel-good” type of giving – one that is also made popular when from a single glance people can look at your and just tell “Oh, they’re wearing Toms… they must care about poor kids”. The real question is now… where to donate my TOMS since I no longer support the mission of this company?

    In addition to Nisolo, another awesome company started by some Austin locals is called Teysha – http://www.teysha.is/ Check them out! They are creating some AWESOME looking styles by bringing together artisans such as textile makers, leather workers & boot makers in developing countries, and helping them market their products for international sale. I hope they keep growing!

  44. Patricia says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your blog. You have some very valid points. Have you ever talked to the founders of Tom’s? I wonder if they would be open to exploring opportunities to improve their system, such as supporting local shoemakers to produce Tom’s or supporting the implementation of latrines in affected communities? I feel as though Tom’s has good intentions, but is either unaware of these issues or how they can address them while still accomplishing their goals. I can’t help but feel that boycotting them is not the best approach, I mean people still have to buy shoes, and there are definitely worse companies they could buy them from.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

    Patricia

    • John Favini says:

      Hi patricia,

      Thanks for your note.

      First, as far as contacting TOMS, I have never reached out to the organization (perhaps doubting the words of a lowly undergrad would fall upon receptive ears). That being said, nothing I wrote in this blog is particularly new. These accusations have been around for a few years now. Check out the Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog I mentioned. It is one of many that made the research for the above post quite easy (perhaps disturbingly so).

      Second, I don’t believe TOMS is considering other means of combatting hookworm such as latrines. While TOMS is certainly a unique enterprise, it is still a capitalistic venture and a business first. While its model makes it a pseudo-aid organization, it is a company with business strategies and marketing, not implementation plans and fundraising. It is a shoe company and I suspect that’s how it will remain.

      It is true to say they have good intentions. I would not contest that, but we all know where a road paved in good intentions might end up. Perhaps they are better than other shoes companies, but perhaps not. A factory in SE Asia may pay exorbitantly low wages to its workers but providing a means of economic elevation, no matter how small, to the near by population certainly helps them more than a TOMS shoes drop could.

      Perhaps TOMS can change its methods and be a less detrimental organization. It has gained massive support in the US, and some might say that is one of the largest hurtles to any development project. They could certainly harness their favor towards a different end.

      I hope for as much but have seen little response to criticism in the past- part of why I wrote this blog. More people need to hear about the problems in their model so as to pressure the organization to change. As for now, I recommend boycotting.

      John