Toms One Day Without Shoes campaign

Today (April 10) marks the second annual TOMS “One Day Without Shoes,” the campaign by the shoe company that aims to “spread awareness of the impact a pair of shoes can have on a child’s life by taking off our own. Why? Millions of children live without proper footwear, exposing them to injury and disease every day.”

From suburban teenagers to urban hipsters, the TOMS brand has established itself as a way for conscious “good samaritans” to believe purchasing a pair of TOMS is somehow contributing to the global fight against poverty – except it isn’t.

Spearheaded by founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie (pictured below), who launched the organization in 2006 after befriending barefoot children in Argentina, the TOMS shoe brand has expanded astronomically almost overnight (see video above). Adopting the BOGO (Buy One, Give One) model, buying a pair of TOMS shoes not only means that you get a pair, but the amount the consumer pays purchases another pair for an impoverished child in a third world country who would otherwise be shoeless. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Poverty, or any issues that stem from it, is a complex situation – so why should the answer be so simple? Free never comes without a fee, there’s always a price to be paid somewhere and TOMS’ BOGO model is no exception.

One of the areas directly affected by TOMS’ injection of free goods into a respective community is the local shoe industry. Contrary to what TOMS might have you believe, local shoe makers do in fact exist in many of these areas. However, instead of Toms “One Day Without Shoes” assisting the local industry by providing funding or other forms of sustainable business growth and development, TOMS bypasses these local businesses and strips these communities of their agency.

Relying on the sympathy of buyers in the Western world to fill the ‘shoe-less void’ is not a sustainable business model. What happens when, as we are currently experiencing, the economy takes a bad turn in the countries where these shoes are usually priced around $50-$75, and become unaffordable to consumers, resulting in a sales drop? Will the children who have now become dependent on these free shoes have to go without their usual pair of TOMS until sales increase again? And say, hypothetically speaking, this brand new pair of TOMS shoes becomes the child’s only, or main pair of shoes, how long will a simple pair of slip-on canvas shoes last for a child who as the website states has to walk long distances in order to attend school?

Impeding on local industries and creating dependency on foreign assistance is short-sighted and dangerous (and don’t even get us started on Toms’ “One Day Without Shoes” awareness campaign). Unfortunately, it seems that the TOMS project is a case of, as one writer put it: “whites in shining armor” – aka great image and marketing with little substance.

- Story by OKA contributor Thiat Makinwa

 

Comments

  • Bluejay

    Ellison sunglasses provides a cure for treatable blindness by giving a cataract surgery for every pair of sunglasses they sell. Using top rated charity, Himalayan Cataract Project. Check out ellisonsunglasses.com

  • chris

    The colonial charity model is a failure. The world is too complex for celebrity donors. The best they could do is set-up a shoe factory in the village then use the money for some sort of grameen type bank to fund entrepreneurs.

  • Tom

    While you have a decent point in terms of supporting local economies versus simply donating goods, the absurd straw-man argument created by claiming that people buying TOMS believe that they’re ‘solving poverty’ is transparently ridiculous.

    • Jeff

      As ridiculous as it may seem. Studies do show that 80% of consumers are more likely to purchase products that are linked to a cause marketing project. Its called temporal orientation, which refers to the consumer’s mindset regarding the present or the future. Consumers believe they have the ability to influence social behavior due to their purchasing decisions (proximate orientation).

      Where I do agree with you that it seems ridiculous, people do in fact think that way. Which might explain the success of other various cause related projects; (RED), LAF, Susan B Anthony, ect. (all organizations that engage in the same type of marketing). I’d love to hear your thoughts

      Blessings,
      Jeff

    • jordan

      Temporal orientation does not mean that Toms consumers believe they are solving povery. I like your piece, but you do not supoprt your argument by throwing jargon at a very valid critique. You just side-stepped it with an unrelated statistic. Also, your claim that local shoe makers are adversely affected by Toms’ so-called ‘shoe drops’ might be true, but its unsubstantiated here. Do you have any evidence?

      I’m sympathetic to your argument as a whole, charity models are messed up, and they don’t work. Whether or not they are sustainable is not the question (some are indeed sustainable, e.g. The Church). Your strongest point is that they do not solve (or attempt to solve) any type of structural problems related to poverty. The alternative you offer at the end is admirable, but SUNO’s use of the term ‘local’ is still questionable (what is ‘local’ when your shoes are made in Kenya and sold around the globe to the first world?). The weakest part of your argument is that the disease burden for preventable diseases is unnececssarily high in the areas where Toms distributes its shoes to kids who have none. You are right, poverty is super complex, but that doesn’t mean we need to scrap any attempt of distribute aid. Some folks have issues that need to be dealt with NOW. You think we should stop funding AIDS antiretroviral treatment as well? It’s incredibly frustrating, but the solutions are as complex as the problems.

    • Jeff

      I must first say I spent the majority of a semester in school doing in-depth research on the positive and negative implications of Cause-related marketing tactics, which is where my seemingly outlandish statistic came from. I spent an a semester in South Africa studying under a Kenyan Professor of Community development. We used curriculum from Judy Hutchinson, a doctor of social work. Her entire study was called “Planning at the grassroots”, which addressed the issue of working with Third World communities who have seemingly no communal structure. The entire course was spent talking about how western influence, when approached as the expert, essentially takes away a communities sense of identity. They become dependent on the next food drop, clothing donation, or financial support from the western world that they don’t know what to do in the mean time.

      Granted the majority of these impoverished nations got to be the way they are from a variety of external causes (i.e. war, famine, dictatorship, ect,), and as a result they are left picking up the pieces of a catastrophe that wasn’t their fault to begin with. The only successful approach to aid in developing a nation is by sharping the tools and teaching them how to use them. Even in teaching them how to use them, we ought to be careful to be the facilitator rather than the expert.

      I completely agree with you on your point of urgency. Yes there are issues in this world that need to be fixed RIGHT NOW. I would never suggest any company currently aiding the Third World to throw in the towel and give up. You are correct in saying the solutions are equally complex as the problems, and my suggestion would be a Hybrid between what they are currently doing, and creating long-term sustainability through education in basic business economics.

      If you notice TOMS is just a very small part in solving the issues of these communities. They give shoes and glasses. Both are necessary for kids to go to school, but if the schools are losing funding, and the economic status of the community is so bad that there are no teachers, hospitals aren’t getting the necessary training and staffing to solve infectious diseases to the feet, then what good are shoes and glasses if the kids have no where to go in the first place?

      Non-profit organizations outside of TOMS that dedicate their entire being to creating solutions for education and health are unfortunately driven by donations and funding by capitalistic America, and my fear is that we, Americans, will get to the point to where we will always want something out of giving back (i.e. TOMS) and these other organizations will suffer because people just don’t give like they used to. This is not a claim, just a theory and a fear. America is the wealthiest nation per capita, even in a recession, and it is our responsibility to use that wealth to carry out the sustainable development of struggling communities, not to satisfy a fashion statement with a cheeky incentive.

  • Dave

    Agreed that TOMS has marketing in mind more than sustainable change in these countries but at least they are getting money/shoes to the people. I’d love to see this turn into an ongoing series exploring some of these celeb driven charities. Perhaps next you could clear up the mess that Wyclef has made with his charity?

  • Matt

    I have to disagree with this article. The fact of the matter is that when people cannot afford shoes from local shoe companies, TOMS plays a huge role in ending the cycle of poverty. To own a pair of shoes means that one does not get sick with fungal diseases that are very popular and hard to treat in third-world nations. Shoes make walks faster in order to gather buckets of water. Most kids have to walk between 1-6 miles to get water. By saving time, not only are TOMS keeping children healthy, but giving them the time to go to school and get an education. That benefits the entire economy.

    Another thing that TOMS does is give a pair of glasses to someone who needs it, in exchange for a pair of sunglasses to the first-world consumer. It gives people the opportunity to see, which can lead to higher literacy rates. When more people can read and write, it helps the local economy.

    This article has it all wrong. Sure, local shoe makers may not get business. But that’s not because of TOMS. It’s because they simply cannot afford it. Although it may not create jobs (which is also a fantastic strategy), it creates a less reliant attitude on a business from the Western World. The last thing we need is for more impoverished people to be dependent on someone else. That strategy never works. It’s similar to the ineffectiveness of the welfare system in Canada and the US.

    There is an underestimation of the power of shoes and glasses. By creating better health, and the ability to attain an education, not only can the third world be brought closer to being out of the cycle of poverty, but creates a self-independence. It empowers people in ways jobs and dollar signs can’t.

    That’s my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      would you care to elaborate on how handing out free shoes creates a less reliant attitude?

    • Jeff

      I have got to say, you have some interesting and valid points, but I may disagree with you. Not to get into too much detail, but I spent the better part of my senior year in college researching the negative effects of CRM (cause-related marketing) on a culture. If you don’t mind I’m going make this reply a point-counter-point.

      First I completely agree with you that TOMS does help in the prevention of infectious diseases, that is one of their primary reasons for doing what they do. However when you said “The fact of the matter is that when people cannot afford shoes from local shoe companies, TOMS plays a huge role in ending the cycle of poverty”, that’s not entirely true. What most non-profit and humanitarian organizations don’t understand is the negative impact of straight donation. The human mind is designed much like “monkey see monkey do”. Up and coming cultures see the free hand outs and associate them as a part of their culture. and when the handouts stop they don’t turn to local business for support because chances are those business are run by the same people who are accustomed to the donations.

      Reading and writing does indeed improve the local economy, but this argument is completely dependent our the status of our economy. People are less likely to buy products, let alone donate to a cause when they are struggling to keep their own households in tact. Project (RED) for example faced the reality in the recession of 2008 that it is possible for non-profits to lose all funding necessary to keep their initiatives going. America may be the wealthiest nation, but that doesn’t mean people are gonna share it.

      The fact that people cannot afford necessities from local business isn’t because these vendors are charging too much, its because of the cost of natural resources to run a business and the knowhow and expertise to run these local businesses. Some of the most stable “Third World” villages are ones that are not influenced by western culture. In addition these cultures have their own issues (War, drug cartels, famine, infectious disease, ect). Although it is our responsibility as the “privileged” (and i use that very lightly), we tend to emphasize the end result (the shoes) rather than the process…teaching them how to create self-sustaining business without western fabrication.

      We are not the key to fixing everything. Any effective non-profit organization is one that after it has reached its goal no longer has the need to operate in the same areas. This is achieved once the community has complete sustainable control over their own economic situation.

      I understand my points may be flawed as well, and would love your feedback and thoughts. I loved your arguments. have a wonderful week.

      Regards,
      Jeff

  • ryan

    i like that there is an alternative offered for people who believe they are choosing between the lesser of two evils (keds who claims nothing and tom’s that claims at least to be trying to do some good)…and then i went ahead to the suno website only to be disappointed by the scary white lady model. really, suno? in all of nueva york you couldn’t find one black model for your kenya-inspired wares? really?

  • RM

    This post is a little bit ridiculous and at the end its just promoting SUNO sneakers. In all honesty, not every organization is perfect and at least this guy is doing something. When he started the project, that probably seemed like a logical solution, which is helpful in some ways regardless of whatever problems it may not be able to fix. People need to stop trashing everyone that tries to do something good for other people. It’s not like your doing anything yourself. If you really don’t like it, stop writing crap on your computer and start doing something about it. Even then, don’t tear down what other people do to help.

  • Will

    Argghhhh! People helping people! Nooooo!

    TOMS works with partners in the field so that their giving is carried out in a manner that is as productive as possible. The argument that local markets are being undermined doesn’t hold water for me.

    First, if there is a local alternative then why are there still kids without shoes? Shoes being given to children is not a lost sale for a local shoe shop (if there is one). That child, or it’s parents, were not able, or willing, to make the purchase in the first place (for whatever reason).

    Secondly, I don’t believe that giving leads to dependancy. I think it’s terribly niave to think that a community will loose all desire to provide for itself simply because an outside entity provides some service that it is unwilling or unable to provide for itself.

    Lastly, if TOMS or other BOGO companies did not follow BOGO they wouldn’t have FUNDS to donate in the first place. The thought exercise: “Could the money be better spent on something else?” is irrelevent since without the initial purchase there is nothing to give. If you want to pontificate on whether a “local production” model is better than a BOGO model that’s fine, but I’d wager that TOMS would not be as capable to give as it is if it did not use the model it does.

    Cheers!

  • Hayley

    But isn’t doing SOMETHING better than doing nothing? Yes, it is not changing the world, but at least people are trying to do what they can where they can. “Be the change”, however great or small. Sometimes that means buying overpriced shoes hoping that it might help someone somewhere. Imagine if every business model had a one for one campaign? There would be a lot more good going on in the world. I personally am not crazy about TOMS shoes, they are narrow and I find them to be horribly uncomfortable, but I appreciate that they are trying to do something.

  • Talia

    I see the reasoning behind your article. However, if business thought about how to create a more marketable product using the materials they might become viable again. I find it interesting that the people that Tom’s shoes help are in poverty they wouldn’t be able to support these “effected” business anyway. The thing you did not address is that in third world countries the divide of the rich and the poor is so great that the people who are getting the shoes are also people struggling to survive and scramble for basic human needs.

    I think your wrong to defend “business” that have never bothered to find solutions for their own countries. It’s never to late for them to get in that game!

    • Ned

      Unless you grew up in one of those countries and know that the majority of the people that work in those shoe factories are poor. So the unemployment and subsequent increased “poverty” is the necessary means to an end of “children” having a pair of shoes?

  • Jess

    What are you, Swank, doing to help impoverished children in the world?

  • ShoesSense

    I fully appreciate that there are developing countries and
    small kids that they need our help. Everyone can contribute to this by his
    position even a small amount of help. On the other hand, there are some stakes
    that try to exploit the situation on their behalf. Where is the real truth?