The phrase “Where can I buy TOMS shoes?” is Googled 500,000 times a month in North America.
This speaks to how well TOMS has marketed its product. Its efforts will peak on April 10th, 2012, when hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. and Canada will go barefoot for an entire day, as part of the Santa Monica-based shoemaker’s “One Day Without Shoes” event.
“One Day Without Shoes” is a word-of-mouth campaign, meant to raise awareness about the millions of kids around the world who go shoeless all the time. “Just take ‘em off, and when people ask why, tell them,” the website says.
Meanwhile, TOMS’ ongoing “One for One” program aims to help solve the problem directly. For every pair of TOMS shoes purchased, the company gives a pair to a child in need. From Nicaragua to New Orleans to Niger, TOMS has distributed shoes to more than a million children already. In addition to helping prevent soil-borne diseases, these donations help recipients attend schools in many places that forbid bare feet.
It’s hard not to feel good when a company’s giving you so many ways to help, is it? But are all these donated shoes really making a lasting difference?I notice very few people are Googling “Why should I buy TOMS” or “What are the downsides of TOMS’ programs?” If they did, it would show they were skeptical of the shoemaker’s approach, just like I am.
While TOMS is doing a lot to help individuals in need, it’s arguably threatening local shoe industries. Ask yourself, for example: how could a burgeoning Zambian shoemaker compete with foreign-made shoes being distributed in its country for free?
TOMS means well, but it’s also reinforcing the stereotype of developing countries needing handouts to survive. That’s not always the case, but this kind of charity can make it true.
This is why I haven’t bought a pair of TOMS. I have bought two pairs of shoes made by Oliberté, though. Oliberté is the first company to manufacture premium shoes in Africa itself, using materials sourced from that continent. The shoes are stitched and assembled in Ethiopia with leather sourced from local free-range cows, sheep and goats. The livestock haven’t been injected with hormones to speed their growth—a common practice in other parts of the world.
Oliberté directly links shoes sold by Western retailers to jobs created in Africa, for Africans. Here’s a model that isn’t about handouts, or even a hand up—but instead about striking business deals between partners. On a given day, 100 to 200 people are working to make Oliberté’s products. Creating jobs that pay a fair wage has far more impact than simply giving something away, especially if it’s something you can quickly grow out of, like a shoe.
And so, tomorrow, I’m going to keep my shoes on. Not because I don’t believe something needs to be done, but because I think there is a better way to do it.