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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125 thoughts on “Some bad news about TOMS shoes”

  1. Pingback: PhenQ Avis
  2. By donating physical things, you can actually hurt these communities. There are many books about it. For anyone interested in charity and donation, I suggest you read When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steven Corbett.

  3. The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative is an incredibly cost-efficient deworming organization that helps governments take control of their own public health crises. Estimates are that it costs $1.26 to deworm one child through SCI.

    The Deworm the World Initiative supports school-based deworming programs. Depending on how you do the math, it costs $0.80 or $0.51 to deworm a child.

    If you’re concerned about the efficacy of donation, please consider including evidence-backed (and vetted) organizations for your readers to shift their funds towards. Not only should you not buy TOMS–you SHOULD feel empowered to do good by donating to these incredible organizations!

    These charities have been extensively researched by many charity rankers. My favorite profiles of each are at Givewell’s website, but you can do your own research and still come up with an incredibly low cost for helping deworm children.

  4. Hurray for TOMS! This racket is the mastermind of a marketing genius…Blake had several failed businesses before striking it rich with his TOMS concept. I’m glad that kids are getting free shoes. But guess what hipsters?? These shoes you’re buying for $28-$55 a pair (the cheapest models btw…) aren’t costing Blake even $4 a pair to make. I should know…I manufacture shoes as well. They are mass produced using a “cemented sole” method, which means they are made quickly and cheaply. So, give him $55 and he will give another pair away…still makes a killer profit from your need to be a socially aware hipster. :)

    1. You realize that he also has to cover the cost of actually conducting shoe drops? I have lots of issues with the TOMS shoes model for business, but I would still rather buy my shoes from a company that is at least trying to do something right rather than buy from companies that are using massive amounts of slave labor to produce their shoes. I’m much happier wearing TOMS than Nike or steve maddens. TOMS is not perfect, and I am a HUGE advocate for the idea that donate money to long standing organizations overseas is a much more efficient way to help developing nations, I also understand that the reality is most Americans are not going to give unless they get something in return. While send 27000 is definitely a lot better than sending temporary foot coverage, the reality is that it is not going to happen. Americans want to just give money. That’s why social entrepreneurship was created; because we don’t live in a socialist country like Norway where tens of thousands of dollars can be donated to orphanages, schools, and health organizations in developing nations. We live in a capitalistic world. Therefore, entrepreneurs have to come up with new and inventive ways to manipulate capitalism to create positive social change. We are not always going to get it right. However, it irritates me when people want to hate on TOMS and other organization, saying, “I won’t wear those because they…(insert issue/problem here).” But they have no issues with all the other shoe and clothing companies who aren’t even trying to do something right. I wear TOMS and my reasoning is that it is a better model for shoes than a majority of other companies.
      Not to mention, TOMS has expanded greatly. They have partnered with tons of other organizations whose goal is to give back. It’s called the Market Place.
      I agree that we need to push organizations to improve constantly, but simply boycotting businesses that are at least trying makes no sense to me.

  5. I think people need to realise that there are more downsides to not donating the shoes. Infections are an indirect cause of child labour and TOMS shoes are given to small communities of children who in no way coulve gotten their shoes from other sources. These children are forced to stay home or work very often cause one or more family members get infections. On a side note; TOMS giving shoes are being made in countries where they are given and this is expanding! These workers get paid for making the shoes

  6. I resent that you state that the organization has White Man’s Burden written all over it. I see it as a western burden which doesn’t necessarily mean someone is white. That is as
    stereotypical as saying all African Americans play basketball.
    In fact, one could say you are doing the same thing — ” making up for the white mans burden” after all your a white man what makes you any better than the rest. Or maybe your just a rich white kid going to a politically correct university.

  7. I can understand your main point about giving being detrimental to the local economy. However… on a practical note… is the local economy giving free shoes to the children? Probably not. In fact, if the children are already shoeless, then they will remain so even if TOMS are not given.

    Yes, perhaps, there are children who accept TOMS who would otherwise have shoes purchased from a local vendor. And yes, if true, it would hurt the local economy. But… does that mean we should leave the poorest children shoeless? Should we not give, so that the families who CAN afford shoes will continue to buy locally, therefore sustaining the local economy?

    There’s a hole in that theory. It still leaves behind the children who NEED shoes.

    1. No, when shoes are given to communities in Africa it puts the local shoe makers out of business. The few cents they get for each pair of shoes they make makes a difference in their lives.. now they have nothing. Imagine if someone gave you a new pair of Jordan’s every 6 months…. you’d never have to buy a pair of sneakers.. now do that for everyone in your town… I am pretty sure the local Foot Locker would be closed down within a year. It’s simple economics.

      1. But the issue is that most of the children that TOMS donates to are not buying shoes and never were. He isn’t giving shoes to adults and every member the community. He is donating to members of society who do not constitute any part of the market. That’s like saying giving free clothes and shoes to the homeless would effect the economy. It won’t because they weren’t buying them anyways. Obviously we should be looking for ways for these families to able to buy shoes for their children in long run, but there is nothing wrong with providing immediate solutions to problems, so long as you are looking for answers for sustainable change and long term economic growth at the same time. Obviously, that’s not what TOMS is doing, but other organizations are looking to make those changes. That’s what makes lasting change, multiple organizations working toward creating change.

    2. The best way to support anyone in need, whether they are from Africa, Russia… your own community is to donate money. Who are you to decide what they need and how they should use any dontations? Money is the only thing to help stimulate an economy not free gifts that may or may not even be needed in the first place. Instead of buying a $60 pair of ugly shoes.. that costs them $3-5 each to make… so yes TOMS is a for-profit company… why don’t you look up charities you can donate money to to support education… build clean water systems… toilets… vaccinations and health care… The Mocha Club is a good start… you can donate $10 a month and make a HUGE impact. They do not need shoes.. they need to get rid of the waste so shoes aren’t even a worry for them. Hookworms aren’t deadly.

      1. It sounds like you might actually be most interested in a great nonprofit called Give Directly. They actually give cash to people who need it most, trusting that people know how to best sped the money. They are totally transparent with how the money is spent. It’s really a fascinating concept!

        On the other hand, the nonprofit I work for was actually just named the #2 most innovative not-for-profit in the world by Fast Company… we give work, not aid (I won’t toot our horn too much, but you’ll find us if you google it). Would be more than glad to answer any questions.

  8. While I understand the purpose of this article, your first point is probably your weakest and you may not realize it. In this hypothetical 1,000 student scenario, first problem is, TOMS is not giving $27,000 worth of product to them. If a pair of TOMS is $54 as your example implies, it may cost TOMS $4 or $5 per pair MAX. This would be they could donate $4 or $5k not 27. There is no way those funds would help 13 other districts. Next problem with this scenario is it somehow leads you to believe that hookworm is the only thing that the shoes prevent and that there is a more cost effective way to solve the same problem. I am no doctor, but I can’t help but imagine there are other problems that come with a child not wearing shoes (one that plumbing won’t fix). Lastly, with this example, are you unfamiliar with the idea of quality of life? Even if hookworm WAS the only problem and there was a choice between solving it for $2000 via plumbing or getting kids some GD shoes for $5000, I don’t see what’s so terrible about this.

    1. Have you ever worn TOMS? I feel like anything on the city streets will poke through them.. rocks and sticks on un paved African roads will destroy a pair of toms in a few weeks.

  9. Honestly I think you sound like a jerk – Instead of telling us what you think should be done , why not contact them and see if you could get your ideas addressed instead of trying to make them look bad. Kinda a dick move IMO. If anything you could be hurting those in need.

      1. Please provide me with some examples of your beloved “local vendors”. Your theory makes sense, but I don’t imagine a bunch of “local shoe companies” in these impoverished areas.

        I just bought a pair of these shoes purely based on style unaware of the free shoes thing and was pleasantly surprised. I get your point in theory but you are, at the base of it, ripping a shoe company for giving away free shoes.

  10. One of the reason TOMS provides the shoes is so that children are able to go to school. However, they are giving shoes out in schools, therefore the children already have the requirements to go to school. TOMS should be going out in the communities and seeing which children are not attending school so that they could get them the proper footwear.

    Also, I have seen first hand in the developing world,TOMS shoes being seen as for poor children and so people don’t want to wear them because they don’t want to be perceived as poor. Children bully other children for being poor and so the black TOMS shoes are unworn, or worn by the elderly grandmother.

    Latrines are such a better method of preventing so many diseases, and they are more long-term (if taken care of).

  11. who the fuck care they are comfy and I have been wearing mine for about 7 months (while going for long ass walks a lot) and they are still wearable lmao

  12. I feel like a lot of people commenting don’t understand the articles main points. The article uses logical arguments to establish it’s purpose but the disagreements I’m reading here largely lack any logical thinking and use an argument of the lesser of two evils which is a fallacy. One commenter even called out the writer asking what he does to help the poor, questioning the ethics of the writer himself and not the argument he constructed. These comments blow.

  13. Your $27k example is misleading. The shoes likely cost Toms much less than that to make. So yes they could still build a latrine but it it not the equivalent of 74 pairs of shoes. Assuming their margin is 75%, a pair of shoes costs them $7, and the latrine is the equivalent cost of 286 pairs of shoes which could serve 3 communities of the size in your example. I get your argument – solve the underlying problem – but they still need shoes either way.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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. :)

    1. When you buy Tom’s you undercut a local economy, please educate yourself. That means you put the shoe seller out of business, the shoe seller has ten children, therefore, you have just taken a livelihood away from a man who has ten children. Buy Tom’s, starve a child. I used to live in Africa and people aren’t going around shoeless. There are a ton of comfortable shoes out there, but God forbid that you should actually have to give up something that hurts someone else.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

    1. Dan – There are people who sell shoes in their communities. People who make a living doing it. If Tom’s really wanted to help the would sell the shoes at a very low price to the vendor, who could then sell them at a very low price to customers. They could have payment plans. It is also proven that when you give something away it has less value, please read Dead Aid, and The White Man’s burden before you comment again. And possibly take economics 101. So when Tom’s comes in they put the local vendor out of business, the local vendor sells shoes to support his family, once he is out of business he can’t feed his family. Do you get it? Or do I need to use smaller words.

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