Your TOMS Don’t Help

I could walk across campus right now, and probably find someone wearing a semi-fashionable pair of shoes called TOMS. These flats (though now, the line has been expanded to include heels and boots) have become a popular commodity. I’ll admit, when they first came out, I was quite impressed with the idea behind it. Those days are behind me as I realized that helping third-world countries would require more than $54. Now I’ve done my fair share of helping the community by volunteering since middle school, but I don’t believe in the power behind the TOMS shoes.

If you look at TOMS website, Founder Blake Mycoskie has stated he started his business plan of “one-for-one” after seeing children in Argentina shoeless. The idea was that for each pair of TOMS shoes purchased, another pair would be sent to a child in Argentina, Africa and other countries. However, this video shows that companies giving shoes and clothes to these people do more harm than good. It takes away jobs from the locals who are selling or creating the shoes. While TOMS is stating that giving away shoes help these children get an education and prevent infections, they are really just playing upon common misconceptions of these third-world countries. It is purely a marketing scheme that helps consumers feel they are doing a good deed with fashion, while in fact it hurts the people of that country more.

Somehow this whole thing smells of slacktivism (which, by the way–did you read that article about the term “slacktivism” written by BeJo Goodridge? If not, then go read it on!). We rely on a hands-off method of helping poverty-stricken areas by donating money to an organization that only gives so much in return while we remain completely disconnected. These kids are given shoes, which is something that doesn’t solve the dire problems they may come across: shelter, food, and water. Giving them shoes isn’t teaching them sustainable living. Remember, the saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We are buying shoes that give them the “fish,” while in reality we need to be able to help them sustain themselves. If we continue to mindlessly give instead of assisting their economy and empowering their workers with knowledge, they will never learn to “fish” to meet their own needs.

TOMS is a for-profit company and Mycoskie is using his “one-for-one” business plan as a clever cover up to make money. I’ve personally been 20 feet away from this Mycoskie guy in a presentation during the South by SouthWest interactive (?). He spent the entire hour giving a speech about his company’s history, tooting his horn about the marketing prowess of his idea and encouraged businesses to find their charitable side too. All the while, the audience kept looking at a huge pillar covered in curtain; no one knew what was behind it. Finally at the end, he pulled off the curtain, just to reveal the pillar covered in small picture stickers and other stickers of question marks.  What it actually meant was unclear, but it made people curious to watch for more updates. It’s all just marketing and business for him.

Photo by Shayna Unger

Mycoski’s idea is no doubt altering the business field. But ultimately, it only puts people in an increasingly distant relationship with people in need and removing a chance to improve their skill base for life. TOMS has made people believe that fashion can change the world. While it isn’t impossible, just look at Starbucks’ wristband promotion, which donated 100% of proceeds to help find and make jobs for Americans. Starbucks and TOMS don’t have the wrong idea, but perhaps the more impactful and sincere way to help solve problems is to be a volunteer. Sign up for programs and find charities that would put your $54 dollars to good use; just be sure to do your research first.

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