Before I step on any toes by inadvertently insulting anyone (great disclaimer, no?), let me hasten to showcase how slow and behind-the-times I myself am: I had not even heard of TOMS shoes until a week ago or so. This in spite of the fact that I used to work across the street from a shoe store here in town that sold and even advertised TOMS in their window display. I saw the unmistakable flag in the window but had no reason to put one and one together. Frankly, the logo conjured nothing in my mind more than the national flag of Argentina…
and an inscrutable curiosity wondering what “TOMS” could be an acronym for, since it was in all-caps and without any apostrophe.
I rather suspect I am not the target audience for any consumer product, much less anything having to do with fashion, but if I had been included in some sample survey or focus group, I would never have guessed in a million years that a flag with two blue horizontal stripes separated by a white one — or a blue field emblazoned with a white stripe — with a corporate logo reading “TOMS” would have anything to do with footwear. Indeed, just for kicks, a quick Google search of “what does TOMS stand for” brings up the following:
1. Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer
2. Telecom Operations Management Systems
3. The male of various animals, such as turkeys or cats.
They b(u)yline of TOMS is “shoes for tomorrow,” so I can only infer that “toms” is short for tomorrow. Still, as a marketing gimmick, the whole thing is lost on me — but not just for abstract advertising purposes: I myself would not buy a pair of TOMS shoes in the first place, in part because I can’t even afford the flimsy-looking things, but mostly because it represents many of the key problems with charitable giving by way of corporate profit, up to and including the irony of the law of unintended consequences together with its hell-paved path of best intentions.
As is probably well-known, TOMS is a company that makes mostly flat canvas-like shoes (think Chuck Taylor All Stars crossed with Vans) with the business model that for every pair of shoes you the customer buys, TOMS the company will give a pair of shoes to a child in need (a child presumably living in a continent far away). It’s called “buy one, give one,” or BOGO.
Not to clap myself on the back for my arcane knack of flag knowledge, but I think there’s something to my Argentine association. The story goes that the founder of TOMS, Blake Mycoskie, visited Argentina and took note of the local style of shoe there called “alpargata,” based off of the espadrille design from the European Pyrenees.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. What’s the problem with TOMS? Isn’t it a good idea to give kids in need a pair of shoes? I mean after all, if you’re going to buy a pair of shoes in the first place, why not have that money go to a good cause, right?
There’s a much larger issue involving consumer conscience as well as foreign aid inadvertently meddling with local markets, but I will get to that in a moment. The average pair of TOMS shoes is about $50, which may or may not be in your range of affordability. Regardless, it isn’t likely to be seriously considered by struggling families. (If it’s not there already, my guess is that TOMS will make it to top list of “Stuff White People Like” soon enough, because it’s right up there with TED conferences, Self-aware Hip Hop References, Unpaid Internships, T-Shirts (ironic ones especially), Knowing What’s Best for Poor People, and Wes Anderson movies.) It goes without saying that there’s a good intention inherent in buying a product that helps others less fortunate. But beyond that hypothetical, there are some weedy interwoven problems.
1) Like it or not, TOMS becomes a kind of status symbol, a flaunt to the rest of the world that you are a do-gooder. This may not be the consumer’s intention (at least consciously), but it will invariably be perceived that way. And considering that TOMS shoes aren’t exactly cheap, a strange relationship of charity is enabled.
There’s a much better way to donate shoes to the needy, if that is what you want to do. The organization Soles4Souls gives a pair of shoes away for every $1 you donate. But don’t just take my word for this; here’s Michael Franti to tell you more about Soles4Souls, and we all know how hip and right Michael Franti is, us white people especially!
Ergo, for that cute pair of polka dot TOMS you bought for yourself you could have provided 50 pairs of shoes via Soles4Souls. Which is the better good: outfitting an entire village with protection for their feet, or one single person with a stylish pair of brand new kicks surrounded by a swelter of poverty?
But if you want to be really cool — and help out in a not so patronizing way — there’s SoleRebels, a 100 percent all-local, worker-friendly, sustainable company in Ethiopia. They make their own shoes from local resources, thereby hiring people from the local community. They provide jobs, a means to support individuals and families. Remember that old parable of how it’s better to teach someone how to fish than to just give them a fish? That’s what this is. Self-empowered, the local community does not dependent on foreign aid.
The problem with a well-meaning company like TOMS is that it interferes with a start-up like SoleRebels. Superficially, people need shoes, sure. But the reason they need shoes in the first place is they are poor. Poverty is the predicament, not shoelessness. Address the roots of poverty by empowering people to determine their own needs and find their own solutions, and there you will find real change. Giving a kiddo a needed pair of shoes is certainly nice and thoughtful, but what good are those shoes once they’re outgrown? It’s not a sustainable model. It fosters dependence. And where do you think TOMS are manufactured in the first place? (Hint: remove the “aph-” from aphasia.)
I don’t mean to slam TOMS or anyone who has a pair. My critique is more fixed on the bigger picture. Charity should not be a fashion statement, period. More and more we see this, see corporate America dangle some feel-good carrot before us to entice a sale of their product with proceeds eventually funneled down to the less fortunate (in the case of TOMS, that single pair of shoes can take anywhere from four to six months to reach a child). Christ, just cut a check to UNICEF and eliminate the middleman! Better yet, support sustainable models at the local level and avoid the paternalistic attitudes that simply foster cycles of dependence. What was true for the 13 Colonies ruled by Britain is no less so for today’s developing nations: Don’t Tread on Me.