TOMS shoes: Philanthropy or profit?

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Grace Ballor
Contributing Writer

TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a third world child for every pair purchased.

Whether TOMS’ sole success is due to American shoe styles trending toward Argentine worker, or to its appeal as an eco-friendly and philanthropic business model, the up-and-coming company has certainly earned for itself a sizeable marketshare. By now, most TOMS fans recognize the shoe manufacturer’s commitment to global humanitarianism, but how does TOMS’ business plan stand up economically? Do they purvey indie footwear for philanthropy or profit?

TOMS claims that its mission is to “make life comfortable.” I bought my TOMS because I needed comfy, low-profile walking shoes for my trip to the Middle East. Not only did TOMS provide for my own comfort, but the company, with my funding, promised to make a child in a third-world country comfortable as well. TOMS calls this its “One For One” program. Jennifer Gidman from Brand Channel described TOMS business plan this way: Customers essentially purchase two pairs of shoes with each transaction ­­– one for themselves and one for a person in need.

But does TOMS actually achieve its humanitarian goal? The anonymous author of “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” does not think so. The author argues that TOMS is guilty of perpetuating the idea that wealthy Caucasians are saviors of the third world, destroying the autonomy of indigenous people, out-competing goods produced in countries of donation (thereby raising unemployment and local prices), and assuming that those people are incapable of providing for themselves what TOMS calls a basic human necessity.

This author raises an excellent economic argument against TOMS. By asserting TOMS’ own paradigm on another culture and by flooding a local market with goods which detract from the market viability of locally-produced ones, TOMS succeeds in destroying micro-economies and insulting the autonomy of their beneficiaries.

I still wear my Classic Burlaps almost daily, but I’m now thinking twice about spending another $54 on those Silver Glitters I wanted next. The $12 Walmart knock-offs are not only cheaper, but they might actually provide more “humanitarian aid” to the Chinese, Filipino or Indian factory worker in the form of income which he can then use to purchase the goods (or shoes) he wants, thereby offering another person that same economic opportunity.

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