Cover image courtesy of TOMS shoes
–by Haylee Wilson & Audrey Hopewell–
This article aims to develop a deeper understanding of the Western urge to help Africa by examining the assumptions behind and effects of TOMS Shoes. TOMS calls themselves a “one for one company,” meaning that any time someone buys a pair of their trendy shoes, they donate a pair to a person in need. While this model appears innocuous, it has been criticized for its lack of effectiveness and creation of new problems in the communities with which TOMS interacts. TOMS has good intentions, but the ways in which their company operates may often do more harm than good. This article will explore some of the reasons that this is true. For instance, the donation of these shoes eliminates the domestic market for shoes and undermines recipients’ agency by disregarding the social and emotional effects of shoe donation. Secondly, it does not effectively “fix” the problems that it fails to even clearly define. This article will explore how organizations like TOMS perpetuate a harmful view of places like Africa by portraying them as being poor, uncivilized, and desperate for our help. We examine how TOMS uses its customers’ ability to give as a marketing tool. Finally, we conclude that for TOMS consumers, their purchases are a social act, allowing them to proclaim their identities as self-made humanitarians.
Many humanitarian organizations and social entrepreneurs across the United States and the world aim to “help Africa.” Their goals of solving poverty, ending hunger, or creating peace are stunning at first glance, but their supporters rarely question their motivations behind and means of accomplishing these goals. Is it as simple as clicking a button to save a child’s life? Or donating clothes to clothe a child in need? Or even buying a pair of shoes to send a child to school? If these were all as simple as they seem, the world would be a much better place. However, misguided assumptions undermine the effectiveness of these campaigns. Think about it: how does clicking that button save a child? How does donating clothes give a child a better life? How does that pair of shoes magically educate someone? This article will examine the assumptions behind TOMS’ business model, to see just how they attempt to turn that one shoe purchase into the solution for the education crisis in Africa. We will discuss who TOMs claims to be, what their model looks like, and what they claim to solve. Next, we will look at just how the company’s flaws have prevented that goal from being reached. Through this article, we will examine and critique the aspects of TOMs that have turned its good intentions into unintended outcomes.
One for One: the TOMS Model
TOMS Shoes was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie, an American entrepreneur[i]. His bio is the first story featured on the TOMS Shoes homepage, and the story features photos of him shaking hands with Hillary Clinton and putting shoes on the feet of children wearing dirty clothes[ii]. Mycoskie is at the center of his own story, a stark contrast to the portrayal of the shoe recipients featured on the TOMS website: two nameless African girls run through a field, while a hand places a TOMS shoe on a small foot.[iii] Their voices are absent, but Mycoskie’s story is foundational. TOMS Shoes was created after he visited Argentina, noticing that many children had no shoes.[iv] Mycoskie’s biography frames this as a “humble beginning”[v] for the company, which is a central part of TOMS’ appeal: the idea that one man can start a giving movement, and that anyone can be a part of it for only $50 – the cost of one pair of TOMS Women’s Classic Alpargatas. TOMS’ website emphasizes the personal nature of the company; while Mycoskie’s narrative of his visit to Argentina is emphasized, the stories of shoe recipients are impossible to find.
Since its founding, TOMS Shoes has also expanded into investment. TOMS runs a social entrepreneurship fund for companies that “value impact as a competitive advantage.”[vi] Not to be confused with micro-loan organizations that provide startup capital to people without access to credit, TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund is a for-profit, strategic investor which requires firms to have $10,000 of pledged investment before it will invest.[vii] In contrast to their simple “One for One” advertising, this is a substantial part of their business in which the charitable giving model is notably absent, as are the communities that TOMS Shoes claims to aid. When it comes to TOMS’ investment, the One for One business model is a competitive advantage rather than a social mission.
Since its inception, TOMS Shoes has received criticism for its business/giving model. In particular, many have raised concerns that shoe donations undermine local markets. TOMS has attempted to diminish these concerns by funding an impact study in El Salvador.[viii] Not much information about the results is available on the TOMS website. TOMS summarizes the findings of the study as: 1) researchers did not find a statistically significant evidence that shoe donation impacts local markets, and 2) 90% of children who received shoes wore them at least four days a week.[ix] Although the statistics seem convincing at first glance, they have serious limitations. A study in El Salvador means little when TOMS donates shoes to more than 70 countries,[x] all with different economic and social contexts. Furthermore, the unavailability of the study itself undermines TOMS’ attempts at a transparent giving model. The company’s unwillingness to share the full results of an impact study demonstrate a lack of true transparency, in contrast with the illusion of clarity provided by their simple One For One slogan. This underscores how TOMS Shoes’ appeal is about affect, not effect: the consumer is drawn to the feeling that they are helping through a catchy, three-word slogan. Whether TOMS Shoes actually help the children who receive them is secondary; although TOMS does not explicitly state this, in viewing their website it becomes clear that the appeal is in seeing a picture of two smiling African girls wearing TOMS and feeling that your shoe purpose is responsible for their smiles. The TOMS giving process uses the articulation of need in Africa to make consumers feel that their desire for consumption is actually a fulfillment of their responsibility to a global humanity. Thus, an unnecessary shoe purchase is transformed into a sustainable, humanitarian, and admirable act.
“Improving Lives”: TOMS and the Portrayal of Need
TOMS Shoes advertises that their primary goal is to provide shoes to children who ostensibly do not have access to shoes.[xi] TOMS claims that shoe donations enable kids to attend school, avoid being exposed to infection, and improve their self-esteem.[xii] TOMS portrays its provision of shoes as life-changing at best and innocuous at worst. This section will analyze how and by whom TOMS’ goals—alleviating the needs of poor children in developing countries—are formulated. Who defines the needs of the children that TOMS aids?
The answer is deceptively simple: TOMS decides. More specifically, Blake Mycoskie, a white Texan entrepreneur, decided in 2006.[xiii] Mycoskie’s bio emphasizes his ingenuity and creativity in coming up with the business plan for TOMS, with no mention of the perspectives of the Argentinian children by whom he was inspired. The words and stories of TOMS recipients are absent from TOMS’ manifestoes about its origins and purpose. As a result, TOMS Shoes recipients are reduced to pure need: they need shoes, clean water, maybe glasses. All of these are products that TOMS provides.[xiv] In simplifying the complex economic and social circumstances of millions of children across diverse cultures and geographical distances, TOMS fits within a long tradition of how the West thinks about Africa. Children are depoliticized and used as tools to depoliticize a situation: removed from their hyper-specific contexts, they become representations of a neutral “humanity.”[xv] As in child sponsorship where well-intentioned middle-class families in the U.S. or Europe make decisions about what a young person in Zimbabwe most needs,[xvi] TOMS’ assertion and assumption of children’s needs may undermine parent or community authority and support. Fundamentally, this method of determining and defining needs shifts agency away from recipients and towards givers. The very creation and portrayal of African need by a Western company reinforces a paradigm in which the West is the giver and Africa the needy, powerless recipient. This dynamic is especially acute in the TOMS case, in which the company has constructed an image of Africa as needing consumer products that align precisely with those that Westerners are willing to purchase for themselves.
Give a Man a Fish: TOMS’ Band Aid Solution
As mentioned before, TOMS means well and the idea that one purchase can change the life of a needy child is extremely appealing to consumers. However, their positive intentions and catchy marketing do not change the fact that their model may not do what it says it does. Despite the positive intentions, this model seems to be more effective at reeling in customers than achieving its primary goal of ending poverty in Africa. Andreas Widmer[xvii] explains this idea well, saying that “‘It pleases [the consumer] more than it helps anything.’” If the problem at hand is that a society is in poverty as a result of a lack of a properly functioning economic system, then donating material things like shoes is only putting a Band-Aid on the problem. Donations create the illusion of social improvement: a child didn’t have shoes, now they do, or they didn’t have clothes, glasses, clean water, and many other resources, but now they do.
However, these are not sustainable, long-term solutions to problems that are so deeply ingrained. Long-term unemployment, lack of access to education, and social inequality cannot be resolved by TOMS’ shoe donations. Systemic issues are complex and difficult to solve, therefore, a single company like TOMS can’t possibly resolve them on its own. It is vital to explore the unintended consequences of this model, including the economic impacts that one-for-one companies like TOMs have on local markets, as well as the social impacts that they have, both in Africa and in the West.
Unintended Consequences: The Economic Impact of TOMS
Companies like TOMS have many economic effects that probably never cross the minds of consumers. Primarily, it has a significant impact on the local markets by displacing the pre-existing shoe industry and reducing the demand for local employment in the countries to which TOMs donates. A comparison of TOMs to the second-hand clothing industry proves this point. Both one-for-one products and second-hand clothing donations are imported into these countries, being sold or given away. Consumers prefer to pay low prices, or no price at all, for items like shoes rather than pay higher prices from local markets. Since the two are similar in this way, they will have a similar effect on the market when it comes to local production and sales. Between 1981 and 2000, used-clothing imports were found to be “responsible for roughly 39% of the annual decline in apparel production, and roughly half of the annual decline in apparel employment” in Sub-Saharan Africa.[xviii] Aside from failing to adequately address education and poverty, TOMS’ donations have even more unintended consequences. Local shoe businesses cannot compete with donated shoes; who would buy shoes when they are being given away for free? In the same way that clothing donations led to a dramatic increase in unemployment in the textile sector,[xix] employees of local shoe companies may lose their jobs because of shoe donations, exacerbating existing economic problems. What makes TOMS even more unsuccessful in this manner is its lack of an ability to create jobs. At least second hand clothing “provides women with new opportunities for self-employment”[xx] by allowing them to refashion and resell what is donated. TOMS decreases the opportunity for local entrepreneurship, further undermining its mission.
Giving and Taking: How Donations Rob Recipients of Agency
Aside from the role that clothing and shoes play in the economy, they have many purposes other than purely to cover a body. They create a sense of security, individuality, and independence. Karen Tranberg Hansen notes that the production, distribution, and acquisition of clothing in Africa has political, economic, and social purposes.[xxi] In addition to the negative economic impact of TOMS’ donations, the shoes they give away have serious social implications as well. A study by Bruce Wydick[xxii] found that the shoe donations from TOMs fostered a sense of dependence, having the overall effect of lowering self-esteem of the children in the communities to which they gave. Ironically, this contrasts with their stated mission to empower children in African countries. Similarly, the shoes that TOMs was donating “were mostly replacing already owned shoes, without a decrease in shoelessness among children.”[xxiii] This suggests that TOMS has created the perception of a shoelessness crisis so that their company has a reason to exist. Aside from blatantly failing at its goal to decrease the number of kids without shoes, this further cultivates the sense of dependency.
Another way in which shoe donation is harmful is the lack of individuality it mandates. All of these families, who already have shoes of their own, are now being given pairs of TOMs that are identical or similar to their neighbors’, resulting in the loss of an outlet of expression. There is less variety for them to express their individual styles, a consequence of the West’s mistaken simplistic thinking about African people. In the early 20th century, European missionaries were dismayed by Africans’ interest in Western clothing. Missionaries saw Africans’ desire for individuality as vain, wasteful, and “worst of all, as a pursuit inappropriate to their station…”[xxiv] TOMS’ provision of the same pair of basic shoes to each recipient echoes this perception of Africans as undeserving of the luxury of individuality. TOMS attempts to solve the material needs of its recipients while disregarding their need to express a unique identity within their community and thus their humanity.
The Aesthetic of Giving: TOMS’ Social Impact in the West
Although TOMS Shoes’ advertising centers on its impact in developing countries, the appeal of TOMS rests on the shoes’ symbolism in the West as much as on its charity in Africa and Latin America. When a customer purchases and wears a pair of TOMS Shoes, the act of giving is incorporated into the aesthetic of the shoe. The most profitable and well known one-for-one businesses are those that sell wearable products that “allow consumers to make a personal statement,” while companies that sell food or other consumable goods have experienced less success using one-for-one[xxv]. Consumers are attracted to the appearance of giving even more than the act itself. The distinctive appearance and visible logo of TOMS classic shoes mean that the aesthetic of giving is deeply intertwined with the act of giving. The value of the shoes is not found only in their quality or style but in their social meaning.
The story behind TOMS only has significance when the consumer can tell the story to others, incorporating the aesthetic of giving into their personal and social identity. Tellingly, the TOMS website features quotes that distill the brand’s philosophy into a catchy sentence and that are shareable to social media with a single click.[xxvi] It’s free advertising for the brand; simultaneously, it allows the consumer to advertise themselves as socially aware, educated, and generous. In “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that farmers’ market eggs are a conspicuous consumption product that signify wealth, leisure time, and high educational attainment. Like farmers’ market eggs, the purchase of TOMS Shoes allows the consumer to share their “cultural omnivore” status, in turn a signifier of their own affluence.[xxvii] Ultimately, the appeal of TOMS is much more about the consumer than the recipient: it is not the smiling African girls that matter, but the idea that you or I could be responsible for their smiles. Buying TOMS Shoes isn’t just buying shoes: it’s buying a conversation piece in which the consumer is the hero. Buying TOMS is buying the coveted status of a philanthropist—and for $50, what a deal.
TOMS Shoes was founded with a simple mission statement: One for One. The simplicity of its slogan belies the complexity of the giver/receiver relationship. Underlying TOMS business and giving model are assumptions about the needs of recipients based on outsiders’ beliefs about what constitutes a basic need and therefore, a good use of money. While TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie’s story and background are central to the company’s mission and marketing, the recipients of its shoes are voiceless. The social and economic consequences of shoe donations are given little thought, demonstrating the affective nature of TOMS’ marketing strategy. Ultimately, the appeal of TOMS rests in the ability of the consumer to be part of a movement: TOMS is not successful because it does good, but because its customers can claim the status of philanthropist through the simple act of a purchase. In this aspect, TOMS is no different than numerous other philanthropic efforts directed towards Africa: the Westerner is central, active, and powerful; the African recipient is peripheral, passive, and needy. Thus, the “urge to help” may be more accurately characterized as an urge to be a helper: to earn a status that demonstrates one’s own prosperity, agency, and generosity.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
[i] TOMS Shoes, “Blake Mycoskie’s Bio,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 4/27/2018, https://www.toms.com/blakes-bio.
[iii] TOMS Shoes, “Improving Lives,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 4/27/2018, https://www.toms.com/improving-lives
[iv] TOMS Shoes, “Blake Mycoskie’s Bio.”
[vi] TOMS Shoes, “TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 3/10/2018, https://www.toms.com/social-entrepreneurship-fund.
[viii] TOMS Shoes, “Beyond One for One: Investments,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 3/10/2018, http://www.toms.com/investments.
[x] TOMS Shoes, “Where We Give,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 5/4/2018.
[xi] TOMS Shoes, “TOMS Giving Report,” TOMS Shoes. 2013. Accessed 3/8/2018. http://www.toms.com/static/www/pdf/TOMS_Giving_Report_2013.pdf.
[xiii] TOMS Shoes, “Blake Mycoskie’s Bio.”
[xiv] TOMS Shoes, “What We Give,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 3/8/2018, https://www.toms.com/what-we-give.
[xv] Liisa H. Malki, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 77.
[xvi] Erica Bornstein, “Child Sponsorship, Evangelism, and Belonging in the Work of World Vision Zimbabwe,” American Ethnologist 28, no. 3 (August 2001): 595-622.
[xvii] Knowledge @ Wharton, “The One-for-one Business Model: Avoiding Unintended Consequences,” Knowledge @Wharton online. Last modified February 16, 2015. Accessed 3/7/2018, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/one-one-business-model-social-impact-avoiding-unintended-consequences/
[xviii] Garth Frazer, “Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa,” Economic Journal 118 (2008): 1764-1784.
[xx] Karen Tranberg Hansen, “Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second-hand Clothing Trade,” Anthropology Today 20, no. 4 (2004): 3-9.
[xxii] Bruce Wydick, Elizabeth G. Katz, Felipe Gutierrez, Brendan Janet, “Shoeing the Children: The Impact of the TOMS Shoe Donation Program in Rural El Salvador,” The World Bank Economic Review 7822 (2016): 1-54.
[xxiii] Hyunsoo Kim, Francis J. Lethem, Chang Won Lee, “The Ethical Issue of Contemporary Philanthropy: Unintended Negative Consequences of Philanthropy,” Management Review: An International Journal 12, no. 1 (2017): 4-25.
[xxiv] Hansen pg 33
[xxv] Christopher Marquis & Andrew Park, “Inside the Buy-One Give-One Model,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 12, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 28-33.
[xxvi] TOMS Shoes, “What We Give: The Gift of Sight,” TOMS Shoes. Accessed 3/8/2018, https://www.toms.com/what-we-give-sight.
[xxvii] Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017), 53.