TOMS Is Listening to its Critics, But Buying Sneakers Still Isn't a Good Way to Help the Poor

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Oct. 17 2013 1:33 PM

Is TOMS Shoes Listening to its Critics?

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TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie (L) and TOMS senior vice president of marketing and communications Doug Piwinski attend the celebration of the new One For One TOMS eyewear product launch at the California Heritage Museum on June 7, 2011 in Santa Monica, California.

Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for TOMS

TOMS comes in for a lot more criticism from academics and international development types than your average trendy footwear purveyor thanks to its trademark BOGO—“buy-one-give-one”—model: for every pair of shoes you buy, TOMS donates a similar pair to someone in a developing country. (The company recently expanded into eyewear using a similar model.)

The feel-good marketing of TOMS has been one of the keys to its success, but many critics charge that in-kind donation programs are an inefficient way of helping people in need compared to simply donating money to dedicated antipoverty programs, and that dumping donated clothing in poor countries can actually hinder economic growth by undercutting local producers. (TOMS shoes are donated to over 50 countries but produced only in China, Argentina, and Ethiopia.)

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Moreover, TOMS shoes reportedly often simply turn up for sale in markets in the countries where they are donated. (TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie has also taken flack for working with the controversial Christian group Focus on the Family.)

But there are some recent signs that TOMS is starting to get the message. The company announced recently that it will open a factory in Haiti, paying what it says will be “competitive” wages to 50 Haitian workers. According to Public Radio International, Mycoskie has also pledged that by 2015, the company will produce one-third of its shoes in the countries where they are being donated. 

There are still good questions to be raised about whether clothing donations are a helpful form of aid at all. One 2008 study, for instance, found that used clothing imports accounted for 50 percent decline in employment in the African apparel sector. Employing apparel workers in developing countries could simply be counteracting a problem that TOMS is itself contributing to.

To give credit where it’s due, the company does seem to be starting to think about its impact more seriously. But compared to, say, donating $50 to a reputable charity, buying a $50 pair of canvas sneakers probably still won’t be the most effective way to help people in need.  

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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