Against TOMS Shoes: Ethics Are Messy!

Naomi Wilson, over at The Public Queue, has written an important critique of TOMS Shoes (h/t Tripp Fuller):

The premise of TOMS shoes is that for every pair of TOMS shoes bought, the company will distribute a pair to a shoeless child somewhere in a developing country…. And TOMS does not just give children one pair of shoes and then abandon them — they work to supply each child to whom they give shoes with shoes throughout their childhood.

Now comes the “But”:

For…Shoe Drops, volunteers and TOMS employees from the U.S. fly to various countries to distribute shoes to children living in poor communities…. Wealthy Americans spend more money on a plane ticket than most of the people whose communities they visit make in a year (or two years, or three!), to give children a pair of shoes which might have cost $5 to produce. Moreover, it supports the belief that these people cannot make it on their own, so rather than helping them to develop a healthy economy, we should give them handouts — an imperialist concept if there ever was one….

And:

TOMS is a for-profit company. There are shoes listed for sale on their website which retail for $140 – meaning that, for $140, a girl in the U.S. can buy a pair of shoes which probably cost $5 to make and to transport, and a child in Argentina will receive a pair of shoes which also probably cost $5 to make and transport, and at TOMS shoes the company executives are laughing all the way to the bank. The least expensive shoes listed on TOMS website for an adult cost $44, which still represents an enormous profit margin. All of this to say – while TOMS may be doing something which could be considered a good deed, they are making a great deal of money while doing so.

For Christians, Luke 3:11 perhaps comes to mind: “Jesus said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’” If you mentally substitute “shoes” for “coats,” you can begin to see part of the ethical dilemma. Wilson writes:

Ultimately, my biggest issue with TOMS shoes is that they represent consumerism masquerading as charity. I would imagine that most TOMS-wearers have several other pairs of shoes in their closet which are not TOMS. TOMS allows people to buy another pair of shoes without feeling guilty about it, because their purchase benefited a child in need. However, trying to address the issue of poverty by purchasing a pair of buy-one-give-one shoes is rather like trying to heal a bullet wound by putting a bandaid on it. For those considering buying a pair of TOMS, I would urge you to pursue charitable giving through another avenue, such as purchasing a micro-loan to help entrepreneurs in developing countries.

I have neither owned, nor even considered purchasing a pair of TOMS (they just don’t appeal to me for whatever reason), although I will confess to having quite a few pairs of shoes in my closest. Nevertheless, reflecting on Wilson’s argument, I appreciate her thoughtful critique, but I find her final line to be ironic. After sensitively and critically engaging the ethical problems with TOMS’ business model, she (seemingly) recommends microloans uncritically, although microlending has serious systemic problems as well. See, for example, the April 13, 2010 New York Times article, “Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans.” Ethics is messy, and everything has a shadow side, which is not to say that TOMS, Apple, and many other companies can’t do better.

Read Wilson’s full post here.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Naomi Wilson

    Thanks for mentioning my post!

    I had no idea about the issues with microloans. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. I just mentioned it as a possible aid alternative at the end of my post because it seemed fairly innocuous to me, and from a development standpoint is far less harmful to local economies in developing countries than TOMS. I will be more careful about the offhand comments I write in the future.

  • Shelley Bullard

    It’s all good; those who want to, can ALSO give generously; there are some who might never contribute otherwise, no reason to stop, just add to.


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