The Trouble With TOMS

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