How You Can Help The Poor (Hint: It's Not Buying a Pair of Shoes)

*disclaimer: This post is not intended to be comprehensive or even well organized. I simply want to get some things off my chest and possibly start a useful dialog about poverty and what we can and should do about it. 

**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. 

Today the CEO of TOMS shoes, Blake Mycoskie, did a big reveal about how the company is moving beyond just making, selling and giving shoes. I really think by now everyone has heard of TOMS shoes, the company that promises they will donate one pair of shoes to someone in the third world for every one pair that you buy. Now they will begin making sunglasses, promising to "give sight" to one person for every pair of eyewear you buy.

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.

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. 


Sarah Hubbell said...

You are kidding me. There's a Toms Shop Now ad under this post?! Stupid content ads. I haven't seen it, thanks for alerting me. 

Sarah Hubbell said...

Excellent points. All of them.

Interestingly enough, I bought some a year ago - tried to like the new (at the time) wedges. They were cute, I felt like it might do some good, etc. The shoes didn't fit and I really didn't feel like I had "done any good" through the purchase, so back they went.

I'll try another flat pair now, but only because I need a flat navy shoe. The other side doesn't interest me. I will give credit to TOMS for driving Awareness of poverty and need, but, like you, wonder about execution. I'd like to see his personal giving record. $5 million isn't a huge net worth these days. Might be interesting to see how that's been put to use.

Sarah Hubbell said...

Great comment. I realize that $5 million doesn't seem like that much in our current thinking, but I looked high and low to find a bit more transparency about Mycoskie's personal financials and it just doesn't exist. I wish they would just show what kind of income he is taking from the business. My problem isn't with him as a businessman at all really, $5 million is pretty good for someone younger than I. It just feels like a bait and switch to me, profiting off idealistic ignorance. 

Sarah Hubbell said...

Interesting thoughts.  I do not have the same passion you have about it, but I do think we all need to step back and think about whether or not this trend is actually helping anyone.  The other day I was in a conversation with a friend that had just purchased a pair of Toms.  She went on and on about how she shopped for the best possible price and bragged on how cheap she got them then added at the last minute, "Oh yes, and they are helping poor people too!"

I couldn't help but laugh out loud.  Her heart's motives were so obvious.  Thanks for the food for thought.  Lisa~

Sarah Hubbell said...

Thanks for posting this. I think you bring up some good points.

While TOMS may not be the best model of relief work, necessarily, I think it does a good job of promoting an entry point to young people with not a lot of money to experience the act of giving back — even if they are getting something out of it, too. By instilling in people, at a basic level, the importance of recognizing another human's need and suffering at a young age (TOMS shoes demographic) could ultimately usher them into more meaningful social engagement with their world and humanity at a time when they may be better able to contribute to more impactful causes.

Further, TOMS is a for-profit company — they are not a not-for-profit — which allows Blake and his company to make as much money as they please. I'm not saying that he couldn't be giving more of his money away, and who knows, maybe he personally is. I do agree that transparency is important and maybe TOMS could be doing more to be transparent with their numbers.

In any case, I believe strongly that TOMS (along with quite a few other companies) has brought about a mindset of global community and responsibility for a large number of today's youth.

Sarah Hubbell said...

That is exactly the thinking I encounter most frequently :) 

Sarah Hubbell said...

I really would like to believe that you are right, that TOMS is helping young people become aware of the global community and it's problems and contributing towards them getting involved in other ways. But I don't think that's the case, I see a generation that is already far more cause oriented and globally conscious that any previous generation and I see a company taking advantage of that, not the other way around. I also think the majority of kids and adults who buy TOMS do very little if anything else. Those who really have a heart to get involved and make change don't need expensive shoes to buy and will do it anyway. Also I think people constantly underestimate the contribution that "young people with not a lot of money" can make. Lack of money does not stop the ones that are willing to do hard things and have a passion for change in the world and social good. There's another great book about this called "Do Hard Things" by young twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris. 

Let me see if this link code will work here. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations

Sarah Hubbell said...

By the way...thanks  SO much for your comment, I really appreciate it!

Sarah Hubbell said...

I agree that this generation is very cause oriented and globally conscious. That's great — but I think companies like TOMS helped bring about that consciousness.

I'm glad you bring up the point of people underestimating the contribution that young people can make. Kids are constantly doing a lot to further the progress of one cause or another and I think we as socially conscious adults should encourage all the more.

Some projects that are maybe doing this kind of product to relief model is Krochet Kids International: http://krochetkids.org/

and Mend from Invisible Children: http://store.invisiblechildren.com/

Sarah Hubbell said...

**Some projects that are maybe doing this kind of product to relief model better...

Sarah Hubbell said...

The advertisement for Toms, Shop Now, underneath your blog post is not lost on me.

Sarah Hubbell said...

I can't agree with you this time. Can companies and individuals donate in better ways? Sure. But, discouraging people from supporting a company that is trying to make a difference seems fatally flawed. Toms not only donates shoes to those in need, but they also provide medical care, glasses, and money to eye programs in underdeveloped nations. There are a number of large companies (and millions of individuals) that do nothing. Companies that are at least trying should be lauded for their efforts. Just because somebody (or some company) chooses to donate in a way that I would not does not make it wrong. We can always do more and do better. We are to give with an open heart; not give only to certain proscribed causes in certain "approved" ways. Giving shoes is how Toms chose to give. I can't find fault in that.

Sarah Hubbell said...

*and moms

Sarah Hubbell said...

But, what about the people who truly *are* buying with a good motive?  I have a toddler, and so need new shoes for him every 6 months or so. If my local consignment store (because I believe in trying to re-use as much as possible) doesn't have a pair I like (and I admit, I like cute shoes), then I buy TOMS for him.  Is it because I think TOMS is perfect? No, and I *much appreciate* this blog post and the effort put into any discussion promoting reflection about aid/poverty/charity (I don't think we do enough of this, esp as Americans). And, I agree about other ways to give likely being better. But, like the (Red) campaign, if celebrities and hipsters moms keeping up with growing feet are gonna buy new stuff anyway, why not buy new stuff that helps someone, even if it's only a small bit, might have some bad motives behind it, and makes the CEO a profit?  I want to call out any unfair business practices (and I think it's good for TOMS to see articles & blogs like this to put fire under their butts to be better :), but I don't want to discourage the concept of a company that gives back.

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