By John Favini
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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