Where hip gear and global economic development meet

Something to take seriously, no?

My column this week is on the one-to-one businesses, TOMS being the most well-known, sprouting up all over the place. But before you go shoe shopping with a big, guiltless smile on your well-intentioned face, read a bit about some of the important distinctions between different types of approaches. An excerpt:

To begin with, giving a kid a pair of shoes manufactured elsewhere undermines the economic vitality of that kid’s community, as many bloggers have noted. Further, as Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a blogger at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, points out, shoes are already manufactured fairly cheaply in countries like Argentina, where Mycoskie was traveling when he decided to start TOMS. Expanding the manufacturing industry in poor countries is often seen as critical to their economic future, and offering children free shoes from an American company can undermine that. Why not provide a resource kids can’t find locally?

Schimmelpfennig writes: “TOMS Shoes is a good marketing tool, but it’s not good aid.” She has a long list of reasons, including: “It’s quintessential Whites in Shining Armor. It’s doing things ‘for’ people, not ‘with’ people.”

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8 Comments

  1. Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I have an aunt who works overseas and she was approached by Toms who wanted to donate shoes to an orphanage she was working at. She rejected the donation based on the fact that Toms donates their shoes. In some other countries, the shoes are seen as weird, carry a stigma, and some kids were made fun of for wearing Toms. This furthers the idea that Toms should instead donate locally made shoes that wouldn’t carry the stigma.

  2. Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Someone please correct me if I’m wrong because I saw the program a while ago and may be conflating it with something else.

    My memory of TOMS shoes is that on his trip, he saw shoe-less children who would not be allowed to go to school without shoes. Therefore, the easiest way to help those children now would be to give them free shoes. Yes, they may have already manufactured cheap shoes locally, but that still didn’t change the fact that some families still couldn’t afford them. And by giving the children shoes, it was a kind of investment in the structure of that society because doing so helped children become educated.

    I’m definitely not disagreeing with the main argument though. I am always wary of consuming replacing actual donations to various charities. And I do agree that shoes for children are not necessarily going to be great in every area of every country. Knowing where and how to take one’s money to help society can be confusing to the average person and it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying something you already need and trusting that the company who is promising to use that money to help others will do it in ways that are actually, you know, helpful.

  3. Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I think social businesses like TOMS are a great way to incorporate socially responsible practices in profit-making ventures. I think these companies create a degree of social awareness in many consumers and have begun to change the way business is done. Supporting companies like this will ensure that more crop up, hopefully increasing a sense of responsibility in a global community. While it’s incredibly important to offer honest critiques of their model and work to improve it, I think it’s just as important to recognize the impact that TOMS and other companies have in reframing consumerism to include social responsibility.

  4. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely get that what TOMS is doing isn’t perfect but every great idea started out as not perfect. I think that ultimately, their great idea is a good jumping off point and that other companies should take note and work to make that idea better.

  5. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I strongly agree with argument of this post. I believe that aid can be done positively, but it has to be done with smarts and a knowledge of the local markets and situations. I do not know TOMS’ business model in-depth, but I am a big proponent of nudging people in their own countries through incentives and commercial lending programs rather than handing out donations and taking away economic power.

    Jordan A.
    My blog: The Cowation

  6. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Ooh. This would have been a poignant post, say…two months ago. But TOMS is now expanding their one for own initiative into eyewear, and giving the gift of sight to people in need. That’s what next for TOMS, a brand that strives to continue to help, not just create good PR for hipsters.

    Eyeglasses. There it is. This deflates your entire argument.

    The criticism should be honed toward brands than can provide a service/product that can’t be resourced locally, and aren’t doing it. I agree with Piazza when she said, “it’s just as important to recognize the impact that TOMS and other companies have in reframing consumerism to include social responsibility.”

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      “Eyeglasses. There it is. This deflates your entire argument.”

      Actually, it doesn’t. I acknowledge that development in the piece, but point out the ways in which Warby Parker’s model is more about economic development than 1:1 purchasing/giving.

      • Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t see how it was different at first.
        “These partners know the communities in which they work and help us ensure that individuals receive the glasses they need to see in a manner that maintains dignity and fosters economic development.”
        But I see how it’s a different model now.
        So the model needs to be refined. But the initiative seems to be hardest to come by in the present corporate landscape.

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