Some bad news about TOMS shoes

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

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.


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Jonathan Favini

Jonathan Favini recently graduated from Lafayette College with a degree in international affairs, concentrating in development. As an undergrad, he participated in CIEE's language and culture program and Dakar, Senegal, and American University's Washington semester program on Islam and world affairs. Jonathan is currently preparing for a move to Cape Town and his upcoming internship with the Economic Policy Research Institute. He is interested in anthropological approaches to development, agricultural programs and sustainability, and describes himself as a "self-loathing, Wolfgang Sachs-reading development intern." You can follow him on Twitter: @johnfavini.

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82 thoughts on “Some bad news about TOMS shoes”

  1. You’re right. They aren’t perfect, but who is? Do we go on buying bargain shoes made in sweatshops or to a company that does, in some manner, exercise some degree of social awareness.

    Toms has created a solid product and marketing campaign that millions support. We can only live in the hope that many other companies like it follow suit. Could the business model be different, sure. But its tangible outcome. You buy a pair, they get a pair. It works… And while we might parade around like the consumer whores we are at least somewhere else at some point our spending habits may benefit someone else rather than exploit them.

    It seems like a gap year trip around the world to see the conditions the underprivileged live in is in order for you…. And I’m not talking about a full moon party in Thailand.

      1. PS I’m not saying Toms doesn’t help people, however, it is less help than providing a job, which is also, a long term solution and also helps greater numbers of people. That said, the sweatshop situation needs to be improved and it has been, a little at a time. It’s hard because we can’t just force these poor countries to do it our way, we can help and we do, but it takes time to build an economy!

  2. Jon,
    It’s easy to be critical, but let me ask …how do you give back? If you do, how would you like it if someone criticized you for not doing more? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing at all, whether it applies to companies big and small, or us as an individual? My family and I are not able to give financially or afford a pair of TOMs for that matter, but we donate our time to help those in need. Doesn’t make us better people, but rather than passing judgement on a company that isn’t doing enough, it’s up to us to “be the change you want to see in the world.” One of my favorite quotes btw. If there is corruption going on in the TOMs business, then you are justified in your actions for criticizing and discouraging others from buying their products, but I don’t see the point in your article except start a discussion which you have succeeded in doing so.

  3. I love the comfort of my Toms. I need shoes and these are the ones I choose to spend my money on. When I purchase from Toms, others benefit. I think the cause is as good as any, if not better. :)

  4. The only one of these that even remotely counts as valid is your third reason.

    Your first reason makes it sound like they should have a choice between the shoes or the latrine. Why not both?

    Second, I get it. I’m against handouts for people who aren’t willing to work for it. But considering the level of bad in some of these places, you can’t cut off the ones who actual deserve it. It’s charity, not government assistance. Let the people do what they want with it.

    I can see the issue with there only being shoes given to christian children. But again, considering some of the places they go to, there might be other reasons too. The people who volunteer to hand out shoes are NOT your die hard Samaritans or your machine fun preachers. They might be too afraid to go into some of the areas that need shoes, and considering some of the events in the world today, it could be a legitimate concern.

    And sorry to necro an older thread, but I was doing homework on TOMS shoes for my advertising class and came across this page.

  5. I was involved in a TOMS shoe distribution in Kenya through Kenya Red Cross. There wasn’t the religious association you mentioned, though TOMS have many partners throughout the world.
    However the program was mostly a failure as we didn’t have the right shoes to distribute. One of the problems with shoes is there are so many different sizes. We focussed on Primary schools, and we measured roughly 50 different sizes. In Kenya there are children from age 4 to 15 attending Primary School. So there was jealousy and problems caused by the imbalance of some children receiving shoes, some not.
    I agree with your assessment of it destroying the local industry. Plus the children don’t always receive the shoes. Sometimes parents and other relatives take them from the children. Plus these are children who have never worn shoes (maybe flip flops/sandals/thongs) so it’s an adjustment for them.

    I’ve realised there are no perfect development plans, but I see TOMS gaining kudos and sales from their marketing. The idea of buying a pair of shoes and having someone in need receiving a pair is warm and fuzzy, but the reality is not.
    Perhaps the money from this project could be given to support local industries and health care facilities?

    I don’t know the right answer, there probably isn’t one, but this seems to be more wrong than right.
    This article provides a far better explanation than I can give.

  6. One incredible mistake Jonathan made is assuming that a pair of these shoes has a value of $27. How incredibly nieve! These shoes can’t cost much more than $1 to make. There goes one argument. And are these shoeless kids supposed to wait around for their local industry to figure out how to make affordable shoes? They will be adults by then. You also question their ability to stop disease. There might be better alternatives, but this is the one that works for TOMS. Who are you going to rip next, Mother Teresa?

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