Have We Been Celebrating the Wrong Thing about TOMS?

Almost from infancy, our parents teach us to share. If we have two cookies and our friend has none, we’re instructed to give one away. This idea is reinforced in classrooms, on sports teams, and especially in church, where we learn that a faith that fails to actively care for those in need is no faith at all.

Since this lesson has been drilled into us since childhood, it’s understandable (and admirable) that when a video of a hungry-looking, barefoot child appears in our news feed, our immediate impulse is to send them the food and shoes that we perceive them to be lacking. After all, sharing’s a good thing, right?

In 2006, TOMS almost single-handedly created the easiest way for us to “share” with those in need around the world. Taking the concept of “buy one, get one,” and turning it on its head, they invented a totally new paradigm: “buy one, give one.”

Suddenly, we had a way to use our purchasing power not only to buy a pair of shoes for ourselves, but to create a ripple effect of good around the world by also providing a pair for someone else. We experienced firsthand how interconnected the global economy is and how our actions as consumers in the U.S. can impact people around the world.

TOMS taught us something important: Our purchases matter.

But as the new critically-acclaimed film Poverty, Inc., reveals, for all the good that buy one, give one  accomplished on the consumer end, it had consequences on the receivers.

The film highlights how some sometimes good intentions unintentionally deepen dependency, impact local markets, and paint an inaccurate picture of poverty. Intuitively, we know that aid has never offered the lasting or dignified pathway out of poverty.

In the film, Michael Fairbanks describes this disparity between doing good and unintended negative impact, stating, “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, we all have that, but having a mind for the poor—that’s the challenge.”

Poverty, Inc., highlights the significant transformation that’s underway in the “industry of charity”, as it seeks to exchange aid for enterprise, paternalism for partnership.

Looking through the enterprise lens of TOMS, I wonder if the emphasis on the free shoes they give away has caused us to miss the seemingly hidden benefit of creating a thriving company. Perhaps it’s time to stop just focusing on the free boxes of shoes and broaden our understanding of impact, and celebrate other aspects of TOMS. Primarily, they are a thriving company providing jobs, delivering an excellent product, modeling corporate generosity, and constantly seeking to expand in their global impact.

1. Job Creation

TOMS seeks to create jobs, establishing over 700 manufacturing and sourcing jobs in 6 different countries and effectively empowering parents to purchase shoes for their own children. No parent wants to stand in line for charity for the rest of their lives—just like us, parents want the dignity of providing for themselves and their families. The jobs that TOMS creates are most likely far more effective at alleviating poverty than a box of free shoes could ever be.

2. Excellent Products

I love my TOMS. Even without the BOGO model, they’re a great shoe. TOMS doesn’t use their social mission as an excuse to peddle inferior products, but remains committed to offering excellent, high quality, and desirable merchandise.

3. Skills Training

TOMS has invested in the futures of thousands of men and women by offering job skills training. They’ve also initiated health training, including skilled birth attendant training. A company that cares about training and long-term empowerment of those it employs is to be celebrated.

4. Greater Generosity

While the buy one, give one model has been replicated across products and innovations, the greater impact might be on organizations that have looked to TOMS and discovered that they, too, can actively unlock both talent and funds to have a global impact. It’s both intrinsically good and good business to be known as a company that cares about responding to need, and there has been a recent resurgence of creative corporate generosity. They key is to continue to ask tough questions about what models accomplish the most positive outcomes—for all involved.

TOMS has captured the hearts of a generation well aware of the needs of the world and itching to share. Disproportionately, we’ve celebrated the free shoes and missed the positive impact of the core business.

As Poverty, Inc., shows through over 200 interviews in 20 countries, there is movement underway to shift from aid to enterprise.

At their core, both Poverty, Inc., and TOMS Shoes prove one thing: Our parents were right that sharing is good—but nobody wants to be a charity case for life.

Poverty, Inc.

 

Poverty, Inc., released this month.

Watch the trailer, preorder the film, or learn about hosting a screening event at povertyinc.org.

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6 Comments

  1. T. J. Foltz
    March 30, 2016

    This blog, and the movie will be required reading/viewing for all on our team and board at Humankind. We have been very impressed with Blake Mycoskie and Tom’s ability to make a ton of money for charity. We’ve also been closely following the ways certain charities have, as you say, perpetuated the cycle of need instead of empowerment. One thing I’ve learned in my short time in the world of Christian philanthropy…there’s only one way to do it: imperfectly. That said, we have be absolutely determined to learn from our own mistakes, and those of others AND humbly, prayerfully “go to school” from as many as are willing to show us best practices for sustainable philanthropy. Blessed to know Peter Greer, and we at Humankind continue to be amazed by the diversity and depth of the help they provide.

    Reply
    1. Peter Greer
      March 31, 2016

      T.J., we are so excited to see the team, the mission, and the heart grow at Humankind! Thanks for the ways you serve.

      Reply
  2. Joan Bauman
    March 30, 2016

    Peter, I loved the trailer of the movie. It’s what we all know is true but you and HOPE are putting feet down on the ground to help empower people who are struggling. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    1. Peter Greer
      March 31, 2016

      Joan, thanks for the kind words—and for the many ways you put feet on the ground to help empower people. So grateful for you!

      Reply
  3. Chris W.
    March 31, 2016

    Peter,

    Thanks for sharing. As an alumni of the GO-ED Program, and after years spent “walking miles in their shoes” (no, not those of TOMs, but Africa’s most humble shoe – atingas), the shoes of African entrepreneurs, I simply must support your post here with just a small dose of reality, and not without grace.

    Yes: TOMs has come a long way since 2006. They in fact ARE creating those jobs in otherwise poor nations and economies.

    But for your readers who may not have followed TOMs from their shaky outset, a more complete picture is to not forget the ignorance and damage done during their initial years.

    There are a (grossly surprising, and unfortunate) number of post-TOMs people that have been hurt by TOMs and their model, and that frankly, loath them. What these folks haven’t got from TOMs is this: an official, public confessional. I have yet to see any acknowledgement on their part of their serious mistakes and offenses against Americans and others alike. (This has to do with perpetuating misinformation in the West, and obviously, stifling dignity in the non-West). In my view (and I’m much more gentle than others that need appeasing) TOMs needs to ask forgiveness from multiple parties.

    I’m not by any means saying I’m in the “loathing” camp; however, thanks to my profession, I can clearly see both sides of this tricky coin. TOMs reflects both human potential for good, and the stark fact of human brokenness, all in one business model…

    …Of this, we all must be aware, and humbled into a more just and right course of action.

    Reply
    1. Peter Greer
      April 11, 2016

      Thanks for sharing these humble reflections, Chris. You are right that in attempting to help, so many of us have unintentionally caused deep hurt. We all need God’s grace as we seek to serve.

      Reply

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