The Business of Good Intentions

While working in Ghana back in 2012, I witnessed a distribution of Toms Shoes (here’s my blog post about it), also known as a “shoe drop”. Back then, I assumed their intentions were good and that they might be making a positive difference. I think now is a good time to reflect on this view.

Clothing+Poverty-+The+Hidden+World+of+Fast+Fashion+and+Second-hand+ClothesI found Andrew Brooks’ book Clothing Poverty and the podcast Tiny Spark useful in this process and have used their research below. I highly recommend both of them!

Clothing Poverty shows how recycled clothes are traded across continents, the companies behind clothing donations, and the myths of ethical fashion, such as Toms shoes.

Hosted by Amy Costello, Tiny Spark investigates the business of doing good. Beyond their episode on Toms shoes (which I’ve embedded below), Tiny Spark investigates the world of philanthropy, international aid and development.

After gaining a better understanding of global development and the complexity of tackling global poverty, I am far more critical of Toms Shoes and similar companies espousing ethical consumption. I will focus mostly on their shoe distributions as this is what Toms is most known for and an aspect I witnessed first hand.

From Small Idea to Big Business

Toms was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie after he visited Argentina, traveling and participating on reality TV shows. Blake, who is also the company’s self-declared chief shoe giver, describes the initial idea for the company as follows:

“Instead of a charity with handouts why not create a company where that’s the whole purpose? I thought, you buy one pair of shoes today so we can give one tomorrow. We’ll call them Tomorrow Shoes. No we’ll call them Tom’s Shoes for Tomorrow.” (Toms website)

No matter its moral message, Toms is a for-profit company. And one that is doing very well financially. So, let’s consider their business model in reverse.

Toms has donated more than 10 million pairs of shoes across sixty countries. Based on its buy-one-give-one (B1G1) model, this means that Toms has sold millions of shoes. According to Brooks, “Toms adult shoes sell for between $48 and $140 in the USA, far beyond the cost of manufacturing the alpargata-style shoes, which retail for around $5 in Argentina (which includes the local seller’s profit)” (p. 209-210). Every purchase of Tom shoes is in fact a purchase of two pairs, one for you and one that the company will give away. This amounts to around $10 of cost to the company, the rest is pure profit. And not a small amount, it would seem.

According to Forbes, Toms was valued at $625 million in 2014 after receiving venture capital. Blake’s own shares of Toms are worth around $300 million. Obviously, the company is profitable. But it’s also growing.

Toms has diversified its portfolio in recent years, adding new products to its name. Toms is now a brand (centered around the persona of Blake) and no longer just a shoe company. In keeping with its B1G1 mantra each items also results in donations.

  • TOMS Eyewear, started in 2011. When Toms sells a pair of eyewear, part of the profit is used to save or restore the eyesight for people in developing countries. This is the same model utilized by another B1G1 company, Warby Parker.
  • TOMS Roasting Co., 2014. With each purchase of coffee, Toms works with other organizations, called ‘giving partners’, to provide 140 liters of safe water (a one-week supply) to a person in need.
  • TOMS Bag Collection, 2015. Purchases of TOMS Bags help provide training for skilled birth attendants and distribute birth kits containing items that help a woman safely deliver her baby.

Now that Toms has private investors, one may question whether this growth is for the sake of people around the world or to sell more products and increase profits.

So, what’s wrong with all this good will? Isn’t Toms still helping people? As shown below, it’s not so clear.

Getting Things for Free

One fact not made transparent is the amount of free help Toms gets.

For each shoe donation, Toms works with other organisations, called giving partners. This was the case when I was in Ghana. Many young people travel to recipient countries to participate in these shoe drops, paying their own air fares and returning with testimonials, becoming brand ambassadors. One must question if the cost of a ticket is for the betterment of recipients or the traveler.

Toms also use government officials in their shoe drops. They help identify children in need, spending time traveling for Toms benefit, and store Toms shoes in their office, waiting for the day when they will be distributed. This is time and energy spent on helping a company’s Public Relations, at the expense of government officials doing their actual job. Would we tolerate this in Europe or North America? I think not!

Toms’ brand ambassadors organize events throughout the year to spread its message. One of these is their annual One Day Without Shoes event when the Toms community goes barefoot for the day (see photo below). As Brooks writes, “Images show groups of students walking around college campuses barefoot carrying large Toms flags as if supporting a political party or radical protest movement, rather than endorsing a shoe manufacturing company” (p. 209).

One Day Without Shoes event.

This is worrying for two reasons. One reason is the fact that college kids are learning about global issues through the marketing of a company rather than by independent and critical means. Would these students and other “brand ambassadors” volunteer their time if it was under a Nike or Wal-Mart flag? Why not? Nike and Wal-Mart both have their own private foundations “doing good”, just like many other large corporations jumping on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) bandwagon.

The second reason to be worried is because this type of corporate marketing event is tapping into the trend of slacktivism. Concerned people can “like” a campaign on Facebook or sigh an e-petition, both from the comfort of a chair. Buying Toms is another slack attempt to change the world, where people spend a day barefoot. True, transformative change needs long-term commitment and rarely comes from behind a corporate banner.

Does Toms imagery play a small role in these events and let the message speak for itself? No! The company is front and center. Talk about free advertising.

Toms is a business, first and foremost. It taps into people’s desire to “do good” and offers a guilt-free shopping experience along the way. But, should Westerners be determining what footwear others in the global South access?

Giving Shoes, Regardless of Need

“Do shoes actually satisfy a real need?” asks Brooks. Well, in the case of Tom, no, they don’t.

A lack of shoes does not stop children from going to school. In fact, when I witnessed a shoe drop in Ghana, many students receiving shoes already had a pair. This is one of the core problems with the Toms business/giving model. They must give away millions of shoes, because millions of shoes are being sold. Need is not causing the demand. Sales is causing the supply.

Tiny Spark and other commentators have documented similar cases as shown in the photo below. Toms and its giving partners have also distributed shoes to schools well stocked with supplies and first-class computing facilities. Clearly, this is a different story to the one the company is putting out.

toms wheelchair
Girl in Honduras with new Converse shoes is fitted with a TOMS shoe. (Tiny Spark)

Ethical consumerism and other ideas that try to solve complex problems through simple solutions or products. One example is the initiative One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), designed at MIT, which provides $100 laptops to children in low-income countries. Although it received the support of the UNDP, OLPC has not led to improved math or reading skills.

Another example is the Soccket, a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into electric power, designed by a group of Harvard University students. This product, although sounding revolutionary, breaks down easily and costs charities $60 to provide, which is the same cost as being hooked up to the electric grid and provided light for a whole family for years.

Quick fixes rarely work.

The reasons they don’t work is that they miss the most important step of any change: communication. Specifically, communicating with those in needs and asking them what they need and how they think it can be solved. Companies like Toms rarely do this, instead they believe that their external, top-down idea can be applied everywhere and to everyone, all in a day’s worth of work. “Rather than providing products, people should be empowered to escape poverty and not become structurally dependent on handouts” (Brooks, p. 211).

Even worse that wasting peoples’ time and providing useless handouts is the damage done to local peoples’ businesses and economies by thoughtless shoe drops. Toms currently makes most of their shoes in China, like most other large shoe manufacturers, furthering the uneven development of global production and sales. By importing shoes from China to recipient countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, Toms is flooding the market with free shoes. Local economies are affected, taking away demand from a local entrepreneur’s shoe making or selling business, as documented in Clothing Poverty. If people live in poverty, a pair of free Toms shoes is not going to improve the situation.

Furthermore, the difference is access between girls and boys education is a major problem in the Global south as many cultures prioritize boys, send them to school while keeping girls at home. Toms may be making this problem worse as its shoe drops are given to children at schools, the majority of whom will be boys.

The B1G1 model is driven by the needs of corporations and consumers, not people in need. We (the corporation and consumers) decide, for example, that children living in poverty need shoes. No one asked them. No one consulted them. We decided. And then we feel smug and think that they should be grateful, since we are their noble saviors. Well, we’re not.

TOMS’ Ideology

In addition to the physical distributions of shoes, Toms is handing out its own ideology to recipients. It is literally espousing the idea that Toms, Blake, its partners and its customers are saviors.

In an episode dedicated to Toms shoe (embedded below) Tiny Spark provides further cause for alarm. Laura Freschi of New York University found that many of Toms’ giving partners are connected to Evangelical Christian missionary groups. Some groups confined shoe drop exclusively to Christian schools and churches, demonstrating a lack of impartiality to all children in the area. Other groups were found to wear “Make Jesus Famous” t-shirts while fitting Toms shoes on children, an act of proselytizing connected to Toms. These cases point to Blake’s own ideology, which is inherently part of Toms brand.

Blake has spoken at evangelical Christian groups, like Focus on the Family, which try to limit women’s rights to make their own choices during a pregnancy. This is even more serious considering TOMS Bag Collection is working on maternal reproductive health matters.

This type of neo-missionary ideology and aid that Toms is subtly using in its shoe drops and behind the scenes is a step backwards in global effort to address poverty and child education.


A similar criticism laid out above can be made of many other socially responsible brands. For example, the Canadian charity Free the Children and its for-profit business ME to WE follows this model but to a larger level, tapping into young people’s role models to sell its “ethical” products. Free the Children even requested that a CBC documentary be edited because it may show critical footage of its overseas volunteer-tourism service.

Each of us must ask ourselves, do we really need that pair of Toms shoes, or other “ethical” product? If you’re buying them because you want the style and brand as part of your wardrobe, that’s fine, just be honest about it. If you want to help others, there are better ways.

If you aren’t attached to the Toms brand, but still need a pair of shoes and like the canvas style, then buy a pair of shoes for less and donate the difference in cost to a charity that you know and trust. There are many charities out there that work on helping children to gain access to education and solve other social, political and economic challenges they face due to living in poverty. I would suggest Oxfam, CARE or Unicef as some potential choices.

Better yet, think about whether you really need another pair of shoes in your life. Many stores use a business model of “fast fashion” where trends can change weekly. Replacing clothing and shoes quickly leads to waste and disproportionately hurts people in the Global south. Again, this is a reason not to believe the myth of “ethical consumerism”. If you decide that your shoes don’t need a replacement, then you could donate the cost of a pair of Toms ($48 to $140) and do far more good than a pair of shoes ever would.

Beyond thinking about the financial aspects of shopping, it’s important to question the messages of companies (and all organisations, including the charities I’ve linked above) and their actions. All institutions have their own agendas and, sometimes, these are hidden. As shown above, they may even be counter to what you believe in.

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