Archive | February, 2012

I don’t hate TOMS, I promise.

8 Feb

I’ve somehow earned a reputation as a TOMS-hater.  At this point, it’s become a joke among  friends and coworkers, who will gleefully forward along just about any TOMS-related article to try to get a rise out of me. (Which, by the way, stop! I’m not your show-pony, people.)

The truth is, I do not hate TOMS shoes. I don’t dislike people who wear TOMS, or who make TOMS, or who like TOMS. I think the shoes themselves are pretty cute, and if I wasn’t so stuck up about this I would probably own a pair myself. Yet admittedly, I do take issue with TOMS as a model for charity and as a cultural symbol.

Before I go on, here’s another disclaimer: there are much bigger, infinitely nastier problems out there than a business that sells and gives away trendy shoes. I know. I know that there are self-serving and potentially harmful, multi-million dollar development projects taking place the world over. There are much graver cases, ones that are not only not doing as much good as they promise, but are downright wasteful and abusive towards those they pretend to help. So why pick on TOMS, which is at least trying to do something good? Here’s why:

  1. Trying to do good is not synonymous with doing good. Others have discussed this point with more clarity than I could. But basically, the idea that actions borne out of good intentions should be granted immunity from thoughtful criticism drives me completely bonkers.
  2. When someone buys a pair of TOMS shoes, they are buying a second pair to be given to someone else. Shoe giveaways are part of the product. And part of what consumers are buying into is the assumption that shoelessness is a problem, and that by providing a pair of shoes to someone, they are helping improve the shoe recipient’s life. Is this assumption correct? In the same way consumers should examine the claims and quality of the shoes they buy (Will they really make me run faster? Look cooler? Will they fall apart in two weeks? Are they a good value?), the claims and quality of TOMS shoe giveaways can (and in my opinion should) be examined with the critical eye of a consumer who is paying for a product.

Now that that’s cleared up, here’s my problem with TOMS:

TOMS as a charity model (/business model)

TOMS is a business. Let’s be clear about that. But due to its One for One model, it is often touted as charity-business hybrid. TOMS, if looked at as charity model, is a gift-in-kind charity (GIK). The pitfalls of GIK giving have been well documented. Pretty much any large non-profit organization that provides GIK gets flak from the relief and development community (yet the US government still insists on giving a nice big portion of federal development assistance in the form of GIK – yay!). There are a handful of reasons for this, but the one I find most compelling is that gifts-in-kind can harm local business and markets. This is logical – why buy shoes from your local market vendor when you can get them for free?

Kevin from A Personal Diaspora explains the dangers of GIK:

Extensive research concerning local shoe production is not readily available, but a close substitute is apparent and ripe for discussion: clothing donations into specific poor areas. One researcher, Garth Frazer, looked into “Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa”, and found that there is a significant connection between donations and production. Frazer concluded that

“Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000.”

50% of the decline in employment? That means that thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost due to the “good deeds” donors thought they were doing, inadvertently preventing thousands of poor Africans from earning a living and being able to provide for themselves. According to The Nation, “between 1992 and 2006, 543,000 textile workers lost their jobs” in Nigeria, as over 150 companies have shut down due to being undercut by outside aid. Those numbers are staggering and hopefully make you think hard for a few moments.

One of the assumptions of GIK is that the goods being delivered are not locally available. I challenge this assumption. There are many important goods not available in many developing countries – medicine, birth control, bed nets, fertilizer, eyeglasses (this is why I STRONGLY support TOMS eyeglass giveaways) – but I am not convinced that shoes are not (often cheaply) available in the places where TOMS gives shoes away.

Besides first needing to be sure that giving away shoes won’t harm local merchants and economies, and aren’t already available, I think it is wise to examine the basic assumption undergirding TOMS shoe giveaways: that not having shoes is a problem, and that providing shoes can have numerous benefits for children, as well as entire communities.

Here is what the TOMS website says about why they are giving away shoes:

  • GROWING UP BAREFOOT
    In many developing countries, children must walk barefoot for miles to school, clean water and medical help.
  • INJURY AND DISEASE
    Hundreds of millions of children are at risk of injury, infection and soil-transmitted diseases that most don’t have access to prevent or treat.
  • EDUCATION AND OPPORTUNITY
    Children who are healthy are more likely to be successful students, and access to education is a critical determinant of long-term success.
  • A BETTER TOMORROW
    Healthy, educated children have a better chance of improving the future of their entire community.

From my understanding, the logic is: there are many barefoot children in developing countries –> being barefoot puts children at risk of injury and diseases that are often not easily treated –> if children are given shoes they are less likely to contract disease and are more likely to attend school –> the more children that attend school the better –> the more kids in school the better the future of entire communities.

This is not too difficult to swallow. Less convincing however, is what their equation is essentially saying: shoes = improved future.

TOMS is stating that there is a relationship between shoes and incidences of disease and injury, healthcare, school attendance, success in school, and community-level development. If there’s anything I gained from my pricey graduate education, it was a habit of being wary of claims like this. It sounds nice, but I have seen no evidence that more children wearing shoes is related to a decline in poverty or improved communities.

Could it hurt to have more children wearing shoes? Probably not. But the result of more children wearing shoes, based on what we know, is likely to be… more children are wearing shoes. In some places, children need to wear shoes in order to attend school, so arguably the kids that get shoes could attend school when before they could not. But this does not translate into a “better chance of improving the future” of entire communities. My beef here is pretty much what it is about “The Girl Effect” – that nobody should be promising that inputs as simple as shoes or goats or scholarships, are going to result in community or country-level outputs.

If what we’re interested in is improving health and school attendance, it would make a lot more sense to put money into addressing what is actually hampering health and attendance. Most illness and death among children in developing countries is due to unsafe water and sanitation. The reasons that children don’t attend school are multiple and complex, and include economic, social, and political factors. We know how to improve health among children, but unfortunately it’s not as easy (or as hip) as a pair of TOMS.

Cute kid and his pair of TOMS

Cultural Symbol

So why isn’t TOMS, instead of donating shoes, donating money to health organizations, or towards building latrines, or administering vaccines? Well, would you be as likely to buy a pair of TOMS if instead of a promise to give a similar pair to a child in need, they promised to give to respected nonprofits and charities? Probably you would, but not most people. The One for One model is very compelling, and something about giving something as cool as shoes allows us to dig in our wallets much more freely than say, seeing a photo of a pit latrine. More importantly, TOMS has done an extraordinary job of building an iconic product. To annoyingly and grossly generalize: people who wear TOMS are usually pretty hip. They are people who think about what they wear. Some, maybe a lot, are people who are maybe a little more likely to be aware of, and care about, poor people. And caring, in and of itself, has become a little hip. Wearing a pair of TOMS says that you’re in the loop, you’re a citizen of the world, you care. And this has much more to do with TOMS’ marketing and the kind of person that products like TOMS appeals to, than it has to do with the actual good that TOMS does.

I have nothing against dressing well. I fully support it. I also want people to care about the companies they buy from. But I think TOMS, and similar companies/organizations, may have become the poverty equivalent of green-washing. I’d love to see more socially-conscious companies go mainstream, just as it has been nice to see environmentally friendly products become more widely embraced. However, just as you or I should be wary of a dish soap that claims to end climate change, so should we not buy into the idea that shoes, or crocheted hats, or any other product is going to end poverty in entire communities. Let’s dress well, let’s care, but let’s not pretend that doing either of these things is going to seriously address problems as widespread and complex as poor health and education in poor communities. That work is much more difficult, and much less glamorous, than pulling on a pair of shoes.

Kristen Stewart Wears TOMS, Doesn't End Poverty