The Trouble with TOMS


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.”

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

“Acquire no more here than what is absolutely necessary.” –Hermas

“Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.” – Saint Augustine

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

In response to my recent posts exploring how to minimize the amount of baby stuff we acquire, a common question popped up a couple of times:

What’s so wrong with buying and owning stuff, anyway?

I’ve been meaning to explore this for a while – why a minimalist lifestyle is becoming increasingly important to me as a Jesus-follower.  So I decided this was as good a segue as any!

Minimalism and Jesus

I first became acquainted with the minimalist lifestyle the way many people did: through Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

Leo taught me about how possessions are a burden, and how giving them away and living with less are liberating. He showed me how the compulsion to own more is rooted in fear and actually dragging us all down.

As I learned about the minimalist philosophy and way of life, I couldn’t help thinking: Why aren’t Christians at the forefront of this movement? Isn’t this exactly in line with what Jesus teaches?

. . . That material possessions don’t bring lasting joy, and can actually serve as dangerous distractions from what really matters?

Isn’t Jesus famous for saying that it’s harder for a rich guy to get into heaven than for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle, and for telling folks that in order to follow him, they need to sell all their possessions? Isn’t he the great leader who didn’t even have a place to lay his head?

So why was I not learning about simple living from the pulpit? Why weren’t we Christians talking about how to get by with as few possessions as possible?

The only things I ever remembered being taught at church in regards to material wealth were that you should give 10% of your money to the church, and that you should avoid being too caught up in materialism. (“Just try not to love your stuff too much, in case Jesus ever asks you to give it up,” was the general idea. Interestingly, Jesus never seemed to ask anyone to give up their material wealth, so that was a huge relief).

I’m so grateful that Jesus’ wisdom can be found in so many places, and not just in Christian circles.

Since becoming acquainted with minimalism, however, I have begun to see that Christians have been talking about living with less for a long time (as seen in the quotations at the beginning of this post) . . . I just hadn’t been hearing from them within my North American Evangelical context.

I truly believe that the things I learned from Leo and others are in tune with what Jesus taught, and as a consequence, minimalism has become increasingly important to me.

So what do minimalists (and Jesus) have to say about owning things?

As I’ve been learning more and more about the minimalist lifestyle, I’ve come across a few central arguments for getting rid of excess and trying to live with less. Here are a few of them.

(Remember, of course, that I’m writing this as someone who owns way too much stuff herself, and enjoys a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. I don’t know why you should even listen to me.)

Owning Things Comes at a Cost

Of course, almost all possessions have benefits and advantages – that’s why we own them. But we often forget that each additional thing in our possession comes at a personal cost beyond what we originally paid for it.

There are the obvious costs to many of our possessions: many modern commodities require a continuous stream of resources to maintain — things like batteries, gasoline, minutes, data, and insurance.

Many North Americans own so much stuff that they actually have to pay to keep it in storage: the self-storage industry in the U.S. has grown bigger than the entire music industry, at a whopping 12 billion dollars a year. We also have to build and buy bigger homes to house all our unused stuff: new homes today have three times the closet space of a typical 1950s home. 1

But on top of the financial cost of owning things, there are other costs. Each thing I own is another thing I have to look after — to keep clean, keep working, keep safe against thieves. Each additional item in my home is something I have to pick up, walk around, dust, clean, or keep in storage. They tax my time and attention.  More possessions mean more clutter in my home and in my mind.

All possessions beyond what I need to survive are ultimately a burden.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to “store up treasures in heaven” rather than “treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19).

Getting rid of excess and keeping out whatever I don’t need is therefore liberating.

Possessions distract us from the important things.

Because we need money to own more stuff, we have to spend more time working to earn that money. As mentioned above, we also have to take time to shop for things, keep them organized, and keep them clean and in working condition.

In other words, owning stuff takes up our valuable time.

We also tend to waste time worrying about our possessions – worrying that they will be stolen, stained, or broken.

This is all time we could be spending having conversations with our spouses, kids, friends, and neighbours. It’s time we could be spending enjoying nature, praying, meditating, or being creative.

Owning things we don’t need deprives others who do need them.

There are only so many resources in the world. We live on a finite planet. As Gandhi famously said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

The more stuff we own as individuals, the less there is available for others to access.

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

Jesus once said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none” (Luke 3:11). Dorothy Day interprets this to mean that “if you have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.”2

Basil the Great said it this way: “When someone strips a man of his clothes, we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not – should he not be given the same name? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”3

In other words, anything I own that I’m not using rightly belongs to someone who could. One might say that I am hoarding other people’s possessions by holding onto things I don’t need.

Owning things beyond necessity takes a heavy toll on the environment.

First there’s the manufacturing and shipping of commodities. Then there’s the energy required to build and run retail stores. Then there’s the energy used up and the pollution created by shopping. Then there’s the energy used to run our devices and heat our homes full of stuff.

And when we’re done with stuff, it gets chucked and has to sit in a landfill.

If we own less, that’s less waste happening at each of these points in the chain.

(And I’ve discussed before why caring for the environment is relevant to life in the Kingdom.)

* * *

These are just a few of the reasons I strive to own fewer things. They’re the reason I try to own as few baby items as possible.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not even close to owning the “bare minimum.” I indulge in plenty of waste and surplus. But I want to begin to work towards a minimalist lifestyle, where I get rid of the excess so that I can spend my time, energy, and money on the things that really matter — friends, family, community, and God.

This is my goal: to own so little (or things of so little value to the rest of the world) that if someone ever broke into my home and robbed me, it wouldn’t be that big a deal because I don’t have that much to lose. (Honestly, I’m almost at that point. I’m not going to get too broken up about it if someone steals my six-year-old flip phone or desktop computer).

I’m still working on doing better, though.

If you try to live life with fewer possessions, what are your reasons?

PS – Don’t worry — I definitely have a “Confessions of a Hypocrite” post lined up to follow this one.

Update: See my post on Rethinking Minimalism (A Little Bit): The Ethics of Food  Storage.



1. Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers, p. 86.

2. Quoted in Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, p. 165.

3. Ditto.

Photo credits: Chris Bartow and leigh blackall.

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