The Trouble with TOMS

shoes

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.”

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Comments

  1. You can officially read my mind. I was JUST going to ask you what your thoughts were on Toms, I’m not kidding. I’ve had a problem with them for a long time too, and have never owned any, on purpose. But a lot of my friends here in Germany wear them and like you said, they’re sooooo cute, plus they make you look cool. So I’ve kind of been toying with the idea of getting a pair. As of this post I am officially not going to. Thanks for sharing your info and thoughts Kathleen!

    • I totally disagree with this entire post. Until you have lived beside those who don’t have the luxury of shoes you do not understand the need. You say there is no real reason to wear shoes, that people have been going barefoot forever. Though this is true, there are hundreds of East African people who would beg to differ on whether or not they would want them! Shoes save peoples lives all over the world. This is due to the fact that they prevent people from getting terrible cuts (that their medicine can’t necessarily cure), worms (that are life threatening and kill hundreds of people a year). So, to say there is not a need is not only ignorant but also stupid!

      • It’s true that I haven’t lived beside those to whom shoes are being sent, so I don’t know firsthand what their needs are. For that reason, I have to rely on relayed messages and the testimony of others. The video I posted, A Day Without Dignity, features conversations with locals in Africa as well as statistics, and all seem to suggest that there is very little need for donated shoes.

        I’m very interested: have you lived in East Africa and heard them tell you there’s a need for shoes? I would be very interested to learn more!

        • I was born in Kenya and lived in Tanzania most of my life. When you go out into the bush (as opposed to main land cities) there is definitely a need for shoes and I earnestly believe Toms are helping meet that need.

      • Emily W says:

        Maggie, if I may – I have lived with folks who couldn’t afford shoes, so I’d like to add a thought or two to this interesting conversation. You mentioned that there are hundreds of East African people who would beg to differ on whether or not they want them. I absolutely agree – most people in most places want material goods – but that isn’t to say East Africans NEED them. I think meeting peoples’ needs versus wants are two totally different conversations, and it seems to me that Kathleen is speaking more to the need aspect.

        I’m a nurse, and I don’t think shoes save a whole lot of lives. Like Kathleen says, some people in some places at some times need shoes, but everybody doesn’t need them everywhere all the time. I’m curious about the life-threatening parasites that you’re familiar with that people can get from going barefoot. I’m not aware of any serious parasites you can get through your feet, though of course that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. From a medical perspective, the main ways I can see shoes being helpful are for protecting people in places with a high risk of used needles laying around (such as those who live in dumps); and, protecting the feet of people with diabetes. If a diabetic person gets a foot injury, they are less likely to realize it due to poor nerve function, and it is much less likely to heal due to poor blood flow to the limbs. Other than that, I think most people in moderate climates probably really don’t NEED shoes.

        I’m also interested to hear more about your experiences living alongside people who weren’t able to access shoes. Was it in East Africa? That’s a really interesting part of the world to me. Cheers!

        • Like i replied above, i did live in east africa. I was born in kenya and lived almost 17 years in tanzania. i have been to the places that we are talking about. i have grown up with the kids that toms meets the needs of. im not trying to argue, we can ultimately agree to disagree on the NEED. I believe there is a need, not necessarily just a want for material things. there are many, MANY worms and other parasites that eat away at flesh. the fact of the matter is they dont have plumbing and that in itself carries diseases.
          p.s. east africa is awesome and i wish to go back as soon as i get the opportunity!

          • Thanks for getting back to us, Maggie! It’s good to hear directly from someone who’s actually lived there and gotten to know the people.

            Since I don’t have any personal experience, and have only begun to do some of the research, I am far from an expert on the matter. However, others have suggested that it might be more productive to address the real problems — i.e. poverty and lack of proper sanitation — rather than treat the symptom and encourage a dependence on Western donations. They suggest things like financial loans to help families start businesses (addressing the poverty problem, so they can afford to buy their own shoes from local producers, if needed), or helping with the plumbing issue.

            There is lots of debate around the matter, of course. I tend to be skeptical, however, of an approach like TOMS is taking. But I’m very interested in increasing my knowledge on the subject.

      • Having lived in Africa alongside people with the need for shoes I agree with this. Although shoes may not be necessary they definitely help prevent worms and pain from cracked, dried out, worn down bare feet. Flip flops are a great alternative if you are against Toms. Personally I think the company had a good heart behind the idea, some may beg to differ.

  2. I agree with the point about handouts being harmful, but in many places you can get parasites from going barefoot.

    • Lydia, it is not true that there are many places you can get parasites from going barefoot. In fact, you would have to stand in human feces for quite awhile to get a parasite through your feet. If you don’t stand around in human feces, there is no problem.

  3. I just don’t see why the big deal is with buying and wearing something you think looks fantastic, as long as one buys within their means. I don’t mind that TOMS makes money and is profitable as a result of their shoe sales. They are employing people domestically and overseas which is good for the global economy (assuming no slave labour is used).

    Even if giving away shoes isn’t the best way TOMS could help the third world, at least they’re doing something!! The pair of Stuart Weitzman heels I received as an anniversary gift cost literally 10x as much as pair of TOMS and Stuart Weitzman doesn’t give shoes or anything to the third world.

    With respect, I think you might be over-analyzing the issue. I also want to be socially responsible and research companies that I purchase from and support, I really don’t see a problem with using our disposable income to buy things we enjoy.

  4. I’ve heard that sending food and supplies to impoverished people can do more harm than good in the long-term. That said I don’t think that the people who do send these things do so with intended harm. If people are like me they are just becoming aware of how the recipients of our charity feel about it. Now that we’re hearing that things aren’t working out like it was hoped maybe we’ll see a change in how we approach our giving.

    I’ve never been under the impression that TOMS was a not-for-profit company and I didn’t realize that anyone was. I knew about their program and thought it was how the company chose to give back. Kind of like how Tom’s of Maine donates a percentage of their profits and their employee hours to environmental causes. I personally think it’s nice that some companies are trying to make an effort to help. Perhaps if you feel their efforts are misguided you can let them know?

    • Sam,

      There are a couple of problems specific to Toms. First, they are selling you a shoe that you can buy for $5 in any Chinatown in America for $60. Now maybe having the TOMS tag is worth $55 to you, but I’m guessing that a LOT of young people are being duped. Because TOMS is not just innocently “trying to help”. They are creating dependency in a population and providing FAR INFERIOR products than what can otherwise be bought or made locally. When the Chinese do this, we call it flooding the market and cry out that it is illegal.

      When a corporation purports to be doing “good” in order to increase its profits when, in truth, it is doing harm, that is something definitely worth speaking out about.
      Tracy Longacre recently posted..Mating lizardsMy Profile

      • Thanks for putting it better than I could, Tracy!

      • I personally can’t speak to the quality or cost of TOMS shoes as I’ve never owned a pair or looked into owning them. I don’t know anyone that owns a pair to ask how they feel the quality of the shoes are compared to what they paid for them. As far as people being duped, well I’m just not sure why they would be. I don’t see anything deceiving on TOMS website. They seem pretty upfront about how things work.

        As for why they are $60 instead of $5, well I can’t really say. I don’t know much about the company or shoe sales in Chinatown, but obviously people are willing to buy their merchandise so they can’t be charging too much. Goods are only worth what people are willing to pay for them. I don’t think TOMS is being deceiving in it’s sales practices. Nowhere on their site does it imply that they are a non-profit company. They clearly state that for every pair of shoes their company sells their affiliated charity will donate one. Whether that’s a good approach to giving or not is a good thing to discuss. Perhaps they could find another way to give that would be more beneficial to those they are trying to help. You’re stating that the motive behind this company’s charitable giving is greed, which I just don’t see. Maybe you could point me to some information that could prove otherwise? Companies are too greedy when they don’t give back, and when they do they are still greedy because obviously the giving is driven by wanting to boost sales. I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

        I already recognized that giving people things creates dependency (in my first paragraph) and suggested that hopefully we’ll see a change in how we give to others now that we realize how it really affects them. I’m not sure if you’re trying to imply something with your statement that if a company is doing harm it’s worth speaking out about. I never suggested that people shouldn’t speak out if they are dissatisfied with what a company is doing. In fact I said the exact opposite: “Perhaps if you feel their efforts are misguided you can let them know?”

        Basically my first post boiled down to this: I don’t think people and companies that give clothes and food to impoverished peoples are trying to be harmful. I think it’s good when people and companies try to do something to give back and that if we don’t like the way they are currently doing it we should tell them. I didn’t say TOMS was a perfect company. I didn’t say their shoes were worth the money. I don’t care what they charge. They can change whatever they want as long as people are willing to pay it. I don’t own them but I assume that if they aren’t worth the money that others are smart enough not pay the price

        Also, I should mention that I am not one to comment on the internet much, so if I read something into your comment that wasn’t there I do apologize. I felt like you were being kind of pushy in response to my benign comment so that’s how I responded.

  5. Kathleen, I’m surprised you can even wear TOMS after barefooting for awhile. I tried a pair on–they are cute–but they were so tight in the toes I couldn’t take more than 2 steps in them.
    Tracy Longacre recently posted..Mating lizardsMy Profile

  6. Super article, dear. As usual. Shoes are ridiculous in general. I’ve been trying my best to get away without them since I was a child. But, I’m not going to lie… my feet nearly live in a pair of $50 Rainbow flip flops, so… consumerism is alive and well :)

  7. Very interesting post! (I’m a newish reader – really enjoying the blog btw!)

    For everyone who commented that TOMS (and other similar companies) are not being malicious in their intent – you are kind of missing the point. No one is saying that TOMS is trying to keep impovershed countries down. But they themselves are misguided and have created a very successful product that promotes a misguided principle. Whether or not we intend to or not, we as wealthy americans have sometimes made things worse with our good intentions. (You know that old saying about the road to hell…) We come running in with what WE think poor people need and then we just give it to them…without asking them if they really need it or helping them set up ways to eventualy sustain it themselves. The intentions may be good – but over time we have to look at our actions and whether or not they are doing what we originally intended. Are we actually helping people in a much less advantaged area better there lives? Or are we just giving them a pair of shoes?
    Lucky {unlucky} Girl recently posted..Start/StopMy Profile

  8. Shoes can make a world of difference in the right environment when needed, just like there is a right time and place for financial and food donations.

    I don’t think TOMS is trying to be malicious given my current knowledge of the company (though, yes, it does speak to young peoples desire to help the world without actually have to sacrifice their own wants – $50 on shoes that you probably don’t need = yes, $50 directly to a charity, etc. = “I can’t afford it”); it very well maybe that they have given shoes to villages who do have problems with foot cuts, infection and parasites and helped considerably in promoting better health conditions. HOWEVER, I wonder how much more good they could be doing if instead of just donating a pair of shoes they were investing in a local business/craftsperson to make and sell their own products – perhaps like a KIVA loan.
    Molly Makes Do recently posted..The Dry FreezeMy Profile

  9. Interesting post, and interesting comments! I have been seeing a lot of TOMS shoes and wondering if I would like them, but they do look flimsy to me. As for the give-away aspect, I prefer to give money to charities directly (or even better, to give things to people directly) rather than pay extra for something so that some of the money can go to charity.

    I like to go shoeless indoors, but I almost always wear shoes outdoors. I live in a city, so I’m almost always walking on pavement, and I have Reynaud’s Phenomenon in my feet, so they get very cold and numb (meaning I can hurt myself and not notice until I warm up) when I feel even slightly chilled. I have to wear socks about 10 months of the year and double or triple socks about 5 months (here in Pennsylvania), so indoors I am usually in sock feet rather than barefoot–but you can’t walk on concrete in socks without wasting socks!
    ‘Becca recently posted..Four Weeks of Pesco-Vegetarian Dinners (late autumn)My Profile

  10. This was the most ignorant post I have EVER read. Wow.

  11. The fact that everyone has only brought up people overseas that would need shoes. I’m from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. People bring TOMS to the private school here twice a school year for the students and their families. Both my bf and sister work there and got me a part (mind you my mom is a nurse and I’m a college student who was ever “in need”) but nonetheless, I was given the TOMS that someone, somewhere had bought for me when they bought their own. I liked them for the same reason, they went with everything and were so light weight, but here’s my problem, they are nothing like your TOMS. Giving then to people who need shoes, yet they give shoes that would barely last two weeks. I barely wore mine compared to the people who actually needed them here who wore them daily. The insides came out, the souls came off and the canvas tore (with light use to the store or class because I never actually wore them for a whole day out somewhere). Now, I just bought for actual TOMS from the store and that’s when I realized, those in need don’t get what people who buy them. Kids need shoes here, it’s blazing hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. It would be nice to see these people who are in need actually get shoes that would last them more than month.

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