**Also if you own a pair of TOMS, please do not feel like I am attacking you personally. I'm not, I just want to share why I'm not on board this train.
I've been amazed lately by how many of my friends, especially Christian leaders and advocates for the marginalized, are seemingly big supporters of TOMS. I've also noticed how trendy they have become, appearing in hip boutiques and on the feet of teenagers everywhere. Well these recent events have only increased my skepticism about the company, its founder, and their business model for giving.
Let's start with the fact that by all acounts, Blake Mycoskie has the heart of a Texas entrepreneur in him. I admit to knowing very little about him other than what's been published in the news and interviews he's given, but I understand the mind and drive of someone who has started at least two successful businesses before he founded TOMS...after appearing on reality television. Charity is obviously a hugely powerful marketing tool. I've seen it in action many times and it works well to get people to help you succeed by convincing them they are doing a good deed. Sure, a lot of good DOES get accomplished that way, but I will always question the motives. Blake Mycoskie is now reportedly worth about $5 million. I just don't buy his story that starting a for-profit business was simply a way to make giving more sustainable than founding a non-profit. Don't. Buy. It.
Next I want to look at the good that TOMS actually does. They say they are giving shoes to people who could not otherwise afford them in order to prevent the spread of disease and allow kids to develop normally and go to school. But I've done a lot of research on poverty and injustice and economics in the developing world and I believe at minimum they are not using their money where it is needed most and at worst they are actually doing more harm than good.
It's impossible for me to outline all the details of what I've read, but one thing I am convinced of is that we have an extremely Americanized perspective on how we can help. I strongly question whether they are truly able to determine who needs these shoes based on what I've read. Americans love the idea of giving shoes because we see them as essential to life.
What if they really aren't that essential? What if stopping the spread of disease is far better addressed by working with a community to build latrines, provide clean water, and educate people on hygiene. I was floored to read this comment on a blog post about TOMS,
As to sanitation... I have to wonder how hard it is to dig a ditch, and then use that to poop, and then NOT walk in it. Maybe I'm too ignorant in the ways of the ultra-poor, but basic sanitation seems like a prerequisite to civilization to me.Yes, you ARE too ignorant in the ways of the ultra-poor. Staggering to me that people do not have any concept of the fact that 2.5 billion (with a B) people lack adequate sanitation. 884 million still lack access to clean safe water and are dying rapidly from preventable diseases because of it.
What if these people can actually buy locally sold shoes for pennies but chose not too? What happens to the people who import or manufacture shoes or shirts locally when the white people swoop in and flood their market with an abundance of donated goods? Why doesn't TOMS set up sustainable manufacturing operations IN these local communities, providing people with not just shoes for a year but jobs for a lifetime? Why do TOMS make their shoes in China?
Some links that I beg you to read if you doubt what I'm talking about.
- TOMS Shoes: Good Marketing, Bad Aid (from Good Intentions Are Not Enough)
- TOMS Shoes: Out-competing local entrepreneurs since 2006 (from Short Sentences)
- Toms Shoes: Not The Right Fit (from The Point Weekly)
- Do You Cause More Harm Than Good By Giving Toms Shoes To The Poor? (from Zacstravaganza)
- A Tryst With TOMS (from Aid Watch)
- A Day Without Dignity (from Good Intentions Are Not Enough)
Now this last part is going to sound harsh, but I have to say it. America is all about consumerism. I'm just as guilty of that as everyone else. People love the idea of being able to feed their love of comfy hip fashion while in theory doing something more altruistic. It assuages their guilt. It is entirely self-motivated. Americans want the easy way out of really getting their hands dirty, spending time researching the hard ugly truth of poverty and doing something about it. Studies have shown that cause marketing actually lowers charitable giving.
How about just buying a $30 pair of shoes and writing a check for the other $30 you saved on TOMS to a legit international aid organization...maybe consider sponsoring a child through Compassion International? Or send the money to organizations like Water for People or Living Water International who are doing far more towards ensuring survival, public health and economic development. Or if you REALLY care that much, consider actually giving your time to go with one of these organizations to rehabilitate an orphanage or educate kids about hand-washing. Heck, even building a house with Habitat for Humanity is a better use of your time and money.
For a lot more great information about poverty, addressing the root causes and how we can help, I recommend the following books:
Don't take the easy way out. That's my challenge for you.