Are Toms An Ethical Shoe Choice?

By Kara Headley

As someone who works in a shoe store, I spend hours of my time surrounded by different shoe brands and their marketing tactics. Most brands promise, if you buy them, they will help you in some way. Dr. Scholls and the Keds Ortholite line are two brands that come to mind. However, the brands that interest me the most are the ones who promise to do something for others.

Toms shoes became popular with their promise that for every pair you buy, they will donate a pair to a poor country. Without this promise, I don’t believe Toms would be as popular as they are. They are flimsy, uncomfortable, and, in this writer’s opinion, ugly. I’ve seen tons of shoes, and Toms don’t even breach the top 10 for most stylish brand. You’d be better off putting a burlap sack on your feet and hopping around like you’re in a messed up potato-sack race. The classic style sells for $50, and for that kind of money you would expect to get a quality product.

But the idea is you’re not paying $50 for one pair of Toms, you’re paying for two pairs! Toms’ website on their “Gift of Shoes” page claims “Our Giving Partners provide health, education and community development programs to help improve the future of children, their families, and communities in need.” Now, I’m not saying giving shoes to people in need is a bad thing; however, this statement is a gross overstatement of what Toms is doing.

Shoes themselves are not going to make too much of a difference. The problems in many of the countries Toms donates to do not stem from lack of footwear. There are tremendous institutional problems which need to be addressed. Vox reports, “When TOMS worked with an outside research team to evaluate the impact of its shoe donations, the researchers were unable to find a way in which the shoes had much of a substantive impact on poor kids’ lives.”

In fact, these shoes have caused harm to some people’s well being. Good reports “Local merchants who sell basic quality shoes, therefore, can no longer compete with free, creating more unemployment in already extremely poor areas.” Toms can actually take jobs away from people who desperately need them.

So what can Toms do instead? To start, they could stop making a profit off these people’s suffering. The classic Toms shoe costs a mere $9 to make, yet they charge $50 for two pairs. That’s a $32 profit for each pair bought. If Toms was to take even a portion of this profit (or the $9 that goes into making the donated pair) and donate it to fix real, institutional issues in poor countries, they could see real change.

I’m not naive enough to think Toms changing their business model is going to change the world, but I do think consumers should look into claims like the ones made by Toms when they say they’re making a difference. They might be, but it is not an impressive one.


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