Hartnett: My sole problem with TOMS shoes

Annie Hartnett

Take a walk around the Iowa State campus, or any campus for that matter, and in a five minute span you are sure to spot at least one student, incoming freshmen, or even a parent sporting a pair of TOMS shoes. Because of the brand’s vast variety of patterns and colors that fit every personality and go with every outfit, they appeal to a wide audience. But what makes TOMS really stand out is that every purchase is also a donation.

For every pair of shoes bought, TOMS gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. In this sense, sporting TOMS is equivalent to supporting a good cause, or at least, this is what we have been told to think.

Unfortunately, the reality is very different: TOMS shoes, albeit a good business model, is actually a misguided form of aid with many negative implications.

To start, one can easily see the flaw in TOMS “Buy One Give One” aid model by simply looking at the general purpose of aid organizations at large. The template for a good organization is to give aid to relieve the issue’s source or most problematic symptoms in a way that results in the issue’s eventual resolution. In other words, any good aid program should work towards defeating the issue at hand.

This is where the TOMS model falls flat on its face: TOMS never does anything to end or even relieve the source of the issue, poverty, but merely spotlights one of its more meager symptoms. And even in that they fail, because they are still only addressing the problem. Giving away more and more shoes does nothing to promote or provide sustainability.

But this isn’t to say sustainability isn’t the goal, it just isn’t the goal for those in need. By simply giving away shoes without solving the shoe issue, TOMS gets a fully replenished aid source every six months when the shoes wear out or the child in need outgrows them, giving TOMS a sustainable pool of shoe drop sites.

As a result, this cycle does not relieve poverty, but reinforces dependence on free foreign goods, which is a vicious cycle. Now, it has been a long-held view of many economists that the random input of goods into third world economies does more long-term harm than good. In short, free goods offset the supply-demand equilibrium necessary for a healthy economy. One symptom of this is that it takes money from local shoe salesmen who now have to compete with these free shoes, which, of course, isn’t really much of a competition at all. Once you pair this with the constant replenishment of shoes as stated earlier, you now have a local shoe seller out of business.

This phenomenon was recorded in more general terms by the results of a 2008 study for The Economic Journal, which found that used clothing imports to Africa explained 50 percent of the fall in employment in that sector from 1981 to 2000.

So not only has TOMS yet to solve the issue it set out to relieve, it has created a new issue for those it has promised to aid. Clearly, this is not something anyone wishes to promote (especially on their feet).

I do not want this to come out as an attack on those who own a pair of TOMS, far from it. Anyone who owns them has already shown that they care enough to pay a little extra in the hopes of doing a good deed. What’s lacking is the awareness that what we give to aid organizations and charities has a far-reaching impact on those who receive it, whether it be good or bad. The issue comes down to becoming a more conscious consumer, as well as a more educated donor. The joy in this is that, once you look closer and do a little research, you can see just how powerful a donation can be.

One example I like to give is The Water Project, where a $23 donation helps provide a person clean water for a lifetime, as compared to spending $25 on a pair of shoes that might last a year. One could even go a step further and become a part of aid-conscious clubs right here at Iowa State like Hope 4 Africa and the ISU Global Health & AIDS Coalition. Here, you can see results firsthand as well as receive good donating advice.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is that we as educated people use our intelligence to discern the differences between a worthwhile cause and a marketing ploy. Although companies like TOMS may use the cloak of charity to drive up profits, I believe we are smart enough to avoid falling prey to these tactics, or to at least learn from our mistakes when we do. Because the fact is we really can do a lot of good, we just have to take the time to do it.

So if one day you decide to give, for their sake and for yours, make it count.

And please (for my sake), stop wearing TOMS.