This past Christmas, I got an unsolicited pair of classic black canvas TOMS as a gift from my mother-in-law.
As I explained in my recent post, I go barefoot most of the year, making the gift rather ironic. And I already have too many shoes, especially for someone who is a committed barefooter. To make matters worse, I’d already had nagging doubts about the integrity of the organization for a long time, too.
I was aware of my mother-in-law’s intentions to buy me a pair, but I never voiced my objections . . . because, frankly, they look awesome and they go with everything, from jeans to skirts. (I know, I know. I am a mere mortal).
Before I ever owned a pair, I was vaguely aware that TOMS gave away a pair of shoes to some person in the developing world every time a rich person bought a pair for themselves. This seems like a really great thing, right?
My nagging doubts about the greatness of this premise grew out of my increasing awareness that I didn’t need shoes, and was, in fact, better off without them. So why did poor people in Africa or Asia need them? Especially as gifts from affluent white people? Do they even like TOMS?
After I received my lovely pair of light-as-a-feather darlings, the nagging doubt turned into a weighty concern. Was this whole buy-a-pair-give-a-pair deal really a good thing?
I did some exploring and asking around the barefoot community. I asked Daniel Howell, a.k.a. the Barefoot Professor, and author of The Barefoot Book: what were his thoughts on TOMS? (Hint: they weren’t very positive. Most of the resources I share in this post, I got through him).
Through my research, I came up with a list of troublesome issues in regards to this organization. I am not, by any means, an expert, so I have included some well-researched articles at the end of my post for your own education on the matter. I only list my qualms as a starting-point for your own research.
Issue # 1: TOMS is a for-profit organization often misrepresented as a charity.
The organization encourages consumers to feel like they’re doing charity work when, in reality, they’re just consuming. It’s a very clever marketing ploy that has allowed TOMS to make millions of dollars by appealing to young people’s altruistic impulses. Young people want to do good with their consumer choices. TOMS makes it easy to consume without guilt.
Issue #2: They fill a need that doesn’t exist.
This issue is twofold.
First: as I explored in my earlier post, humans don’t, for the most part, need shoes. Our feet are perfectly designed to walk on most terrains and in most climates.
There are certainly some exceptions. There are particular situations and geographical locations where proper footwear is probably beneficial – like in certain parts of Ethiopia, where walking barefoot in volcanic soil can lead to podoconiosis. And there’s the matter of severe cold and heat in certain places during certain seasons. But these situations are limited, and it does not follow that everyone, everywhere, benefits from wearing shoes at all times. Particularly a flimsy pair of canvas shoes that will fall apart in three months time.
In fact, in most situations, shoes can do more harm than good – especially on people who have gone barefoot their whole lives. As the Primal Foot Alliance explains,
“Feet that have never worn shoes have different biomechanical structures than those that have. . . . The problem with putting shoes on the feet of those who’ve never worn them is that those shoes quickly begin to alter the shape of the feet and, therefore, their function. . . . What’s more, shoes provide an enclosed environment that act as incubators for the growth of bacteria that cause athlete’s foot and toe fungus. They also can contribute to corns and blistering with long-term use of the same pair of shoes.”
The second part of this issue lies in the fact that shoes are generally readily available from local craftspeople and vendors all over the world. They don’t need to be shipped in from the West. Folks who are otherwise impoverished typically have the skills and resources to make or purchase their own shoes locally. Which leads to my next point:
Issue # 3: “Charities” like TOMS damages local economies.
A Day Without Dignity is a great video that explores why handing out shoes and clothing to people in developing countries can do more harm than good.
A few quotes from the video:
Every year millions of shoes are donated to places where shoes are available locally. Shoes are available in every country . . .
Handing out free goods out-compete local markets.
Used-clothing imports to Africa caused 50% of the increase in unemployment between 1981-2000.
Importing and donating clothes is expensive and demeaning.
(From a local:) “Why has it become so easy for people to start feel-good campaigns that no one asked for? There are thousands of things this village needs, and nowhere on that list are t-shirts and shoes.”
* * *
Like I said, I’m no expert on the matter, but as a barefooter, I have become increasingly wary of an organization that aims to put shoes onto other people’s feet (and makes a heck of a lot of money in the process). I want to be at least one voice questioning the popular assumption that buying a pair of TOMS is necessarily a benevolent act.
Still, when the weather gets colder around here, you just might be able to spot me wearing a pair of stylish black TOMS. I feel like a complete hypocrite wearing them, to be honest. What kind of barefooter wears shoes in the first place, and worse yet, puts shoes on other people’s feet?
But alas, they were given to me; and have you seen how great they look with my green skinny jeans?
For Further Reading:
Our Position on TOMS’ ‘One Day Without Shoes’ from the Primal Foot Alliance.
Shoe company’s ‘One Day Without Shoes’ event leads to soul-searching about soles by Darren Richardson
One Day Without Shoes by Ahcuah. “The real problem is that TOMS Shoes focuses on symptoms and doesn’t come close to treating the disease. . . Get rid of the contaminated water, and going barefoot is not much of a risk.”
Podoconiosis by Bob Neinast. “Shoes are tools. Those of us who like to go barefoot realize that there are times that shoes, as tools, are necessary, just as face masks and respirators in mines, as tools, are necessary. . . . While I recognize TOMS shoes efforts in these areas, it must also be pointed out that their ‘One Day Without Shoes’ really misses that point. They stress that somehow being barefooted is uncomfortable and a real problem everywhere, when that is not the case.”