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The problem with TOMS shoes | Kelsey Timmerman (Participation)

March 9, 2012

The problem with TOMS shoes & its critics

By Kelsey

“Can anyone think of a brand that will talk about the workers who make their products and seeks to make a positive impact on the workers’ lives?”

I often ask this question when I talk to students across the country. The students look around the room before finally someone raises their hand, and, even though I’ve told them 10 times already that there is no need to raise your hand, they’ll say…

“Um…TOMS shoes?”

Most students have heard of TOMS shoes and their Buy One Give One (BOGO) model — when you buy a pair of shoes they give a pair to some poor kid in some far corner of the world who doesn’t have shoes.

Usually a few pair of students are wearing TOMS and they slowly begin to nod like they are contestants on Family Feud and grandpa just gave a good answer.

“Okay…” I say. “Where were your TOMS made?”

This is when things get a little socially awkward. Many folks who wear TOMS do so without socks. Studies show that someone wearing TOMS is 10 times more likely to have stinky feet.

Reluctantly the student slips off her shoe and searches for a tag.

“China,” she says, as the students sitting nearby pass out onto the floor. “They…were…made…in…China.”

That’s when the reality of TOMS begins to sink in. See, for the past 40 minutes I’ve been talking about garment workers around the world who I met on my Where Am I Wearing? adventure, including the couple in China that made my TEVA flip-flops. They work 100 hours per week, have to clock-out and return to work, and haven’t seen their son who lives in their faraway home village in three years.

Then we have the give a man a fish or teach a man to fish discussion, which I undoubtedly flub up and say, “It really comes down to the give a fish or teach a fish discussion.” (And really, if we could teach fish to jump in the boat isn’t that the best solution?) Then I have to get the analogy back on track and bring it home with the example of the Ethiopian shoe company, SoleRebels.

Impact of a job > impact of a free pair of shoes

SoleRebels employs around 100 workers. They pay three times the typical wage in Ethiopia. The company covers healthcare costs and sends the workers’ kids to school. It’s a universal truth that garment workers and shoemakers don’t want their kids to grow up to be garment workers and an education can ensure that.

The young Ethiopian woman who founded SoleRebels, Bethlehem Tilahun and I discussed TOMS.

“If you give a kid shoes,” she told me, “they wear out or they grow out of them, and then what do they have? If you give the kid’s parents a job, the whole family will always have shoes.”

Yes, someone giving you a pair of shoes would sure be nice if you didn’t have a pair. But a job that allows parents to send their kids to school could change your family tree forever.

Let’s say that every worker at SoleRebels has five kids (the fertility rate of Ethiopia). The workers send all five kids to school and since they have an education they don’t grow up to be shoemakers. They do something that pays better and they send their five kids to school. A job, a good job, has an exponential impact. Within a few generations the 100 jobs at SoleRebels have impacted tens of thousands of people. Within six generations, the jobs have impacted millions. Now imagine if SoleRebels sold as many shoes as TOMS. This isn’t just life-changing stuff, this is possibly country-changing, poverty-fighting stuff.

Shoelessness is a symptom of poverty

I met Blake Mycoskie the president of TOMS shoes last year and had the opportunity to hear his story. It’s an amazing story. He was in Argentina playing polo (I had a little trouble relating to the polo piece of the story) and accompanied a group of foreigners who were dropping off used shoes to a village. The experience changed Blake. He couldn’t believe that something like a pair of shoes could mean so much. Barefoot kids in this village weren’t allowed to go to school. Blake wanted to do something. He got with some local shoemakers in Argentina and had them make a few hundred pairs, which he hauled back on the plane to LA. He went store-to-store trying to sell them along with his BOGO model. A store picked them up, the LA Times did a story, and then the whole TOMS phenomenon exploded. Nordstroms was calling him up trying to place an order for thousands of pairs and Blake had to tell them that all he had was one duffle bag worth of shoes under his bed.


TOMS is a business that has become a movement, so much that it’s the first thought that blips into a student’s mind when talking about socially conscious purchases.


I don’t have a problem with TOMS, in fact, I believe they are more socially conscious than many of the shoe brands out there (that’s not saying much). They reach students and get them thinking about people in our world who can’t afford the luxury of a pair of shoes. If every person who slips on a pair of TOMS stops for a moment and thinks about that level of poverty, it can only lead to good things.


The One Day Without Shoes Movement promoted by TOMS took place yesterday. All around the country folks were walking around barefoot in solidarity with folks who well, are barefoot. Here’s a hilarious post about a fella doing it in New York. But the criticism of the movement from the “Hand-outs are bad aid” folks are valid and you can read them on my new favorite blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough. The problem isn’t that people don’t have shoes. It’s that they don’t have the means to buy shoes.


The problem isn’t shoelessness. The problem is poverty.


A takeaway from the One Day Without Shoes movement of, “we need to give shoes to these poor shoeless people,” isn’t useful. But getting more people to think about poverty on this level is important and I think that’s something that the TOMS critics miss. I always say step #1 is getting people to give a shit.

However, I do wish that TOMS would not just give shoes on the back end, but give quality jobs on the front end. Then impact of TOMS, unlike like a pair of shoes, wouldn’t wear out.


And another article

Dear TOMS,

Your shoes are everywhere. Congrats!

Your ability to ask shoe lovers to link their wallets to social causes is genius. And yet, these emotional appeals for consumers to consider the company more socially ‘responsible’ just shows how far companies are willing to go to finagle those hard-earned dollars and euros out of Western wallets filled with guilt.

Your customer could easily go to someone whose shoes are probably better looking and better priced, but wait, here’s the avuncular: TOMS to the rescue of little developing world feet.

TOMS shoes goes to poor parts of the world and takes snapshots of the CEO, Blake Mycoskie, (in the TOMS avuncular vernacular, also known as the ‘Chief Shoe Giver’) kneeling at the feet of unsuspecting young “Third Worlders.” As the quintessential shoe salesman, he clearly also has other ideas to sell — one of his tag-lines is “Every person who wears our shoes becomes a marketer of our shoes.”

As well-intentioned as this marketing campaign appears to be, I have to say, as a “Third Worlder,” I am bothered.

Bothered by companies that use someone else’s poverty to sell products.

Bothered at the notion that those adorable little faces may have no idea that their images will be splashed across glossies around the world, to sell shoes.

If you wanted these children to have shoes, you would, in the words of another shoe company, just do it. How about “We’re TOMS, buy our shoes. Sometimes we donate some to poor brown children. End of story.”

Wouldn’t it be better to spend time making these children’s lives better? Give them the shoes, but also make donations to build better schools, or build them yourself. What makes more sense? Better schools, access to clean water, and health facilities or another pair of shoes that will soon fall apart? I think there is a kernel of goodness in the intent, but the execution beggars belief, especially when you know what impact you could have on a smaller number of people.

Advertising under the guise of corporate social responsibility when it is more like corporate gain from social ills should be frowned upon and not entertained. I want to feel less queasy about a company taking pictures with the native kids, but I just can’t do it anymore.

via The problem with TOMS shoes | Kelsey Timmerman.

via The problem with TOMS shoes | Kelsey Timmerman.


From → Participation

  1. Kyla Chappell permalink

    I think this was a very interesting article, and if not for reading it, I would have never thought of the TOMS organization that way. The article doesn’t lie, the problem is not just shoeless children, it is far more than that; the families of these children are lacking the means to be able to provide shoes for these children. I own many pairs of TOMS shoes, but I can’t say I bought them because of their marketing technique of BOGO, I bought them simply because I like them and they are comfortable. The BOGO idea was just a bonus, and I can also say, it did make the purchase a little more justifiable knowing it was going to help someone, not just benefit by shoe collection. But the arguments in this article got me thinking, the TOMS organization is a great cause, but for a starting point. Since it has become so big, I think the company should expand, donating portions of the profits, not only to provide shoes, but to help other needs explained in the article, like better schools and healthcare.

  2. Katie Nelson permalink

    I have never thought about TOMS in this way before, especially since I own about three pairs already. I always thought that I was supporting a nurturing organization but now I realize that’s just the front they can put on. It’s sad to realize that they’re abusing the rights to the pictures they take of the children, but I completely agree that what they are doing is totally wrong. Both the articles take a different stance on criticizing the company, but I think the major part was made in the second article. There are other things that need to be done, not involving giving out free shoes, but by solving poverty. However,the first article did a good job of offering a solution to the problem, which I think is really important since they are one of the only shoe company’s that even attempts at helping out those in third world countries.

  3. I enjoyed this article very much, because Although I hear About everyone discussing Toms and See everyone wearing them, I never knew the Hype ABout them..Thats Because The Hype from Average Teens Vs Timmerman is there Cute, there Comfy, and They are to be worn with everything.NOT When you buy a pair, a pair gets donated to a Shoeless Child. Alot of teens Leave the ignificant Part out, which I think is Uncommon. Even Higher Grade Level students and neither have Baliffs who work in The Renton Justice Correctional have told me about Toms (while they are wearing them).But On the Good Side, I like the benefits SoleRebels Give to their workers..I wonder if they Still get Mistreated in the Shops though?

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