The Shoe on the Other Foot

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Charity vs. the business of alleviating poverty

by Christopher Hutton

I love TOMS.  When Blake Mycoskie started the charitable shoe company in 2006 after seeing a need in Argentina, it was hard for me not to support him. Giving away free shoes by having people buy two pairs and walk out with only one is a brilliant idea, for the shoes are not only useful but also stylish and can be worn with virtually everything.  (I like to think of TOMS as the “socially conscious Chuck Taylor.”)

Dozens of companies have since taken on Mycoskie’s principle of one-for-one giving. Names like Sevenly, Warby Parker, and Roma Boots are leading this charge towards a new economic movement that is sure to revolutionize our economy. The idea is to raise the quality of life all over the globe.  So what’s not to like?

Sadly, there is a lot not to like.  The very development of TOMS Shoes has radically shifted the way we make and raise money and the way we serve the world.

When considering Mycoskie and his company, I see two red flags: (1) The one-for-one model of giving is subliminally changing the way we view our need to give; (2) The one-for-one method of giving does not help developing economies.

Throughout the ages, giving and buying were separate practices.  With the one-for-one method, we are able to fulfill both in a single purchase.  This seems innocent in and of itself, but the problem lies in the potential mixture of social purchases and social charity.  If one can perform the act of philanthropy while receiving material goods in exchange, is it actual philanthropy or just socially conscious consumerism?

Shoe-Other-Foot-2Like TOMS, Roma makes boots for people who need them (“giving poverty the boot” is one of their clever slogans).  However, Roma markets its products first and foremost as fashion. “Fashion on a mission” is their main motto. People buy the boots because they are well designed and fashionable. The first aspect emphasized is not generosity but fashion.

What happens if our support of a social justice issue gets linked to a fashion trend? Will the support, like fashion trends, eventually fade away? Or what happens if, having bought our boots, we consider ourselves as having done our part and thus replace philanthropy or selfless giving with self-servicing consumerism?

While the philosophical premises of the one-for-one method are already troublesome, there exists yet another dilemma—namely that this method for tackling poverty is in reality corrosive to the economic development of other nations.

There are three stages of development that nonprofits participate in when trying to help a developing country: immediate poverty alleviation, economic training to create self-reliance, and the eventual development of a local economy.

How does TOMS fit into the picture? The company doesn’t seek to alleviate poverty.  As Where Am I Wearing? author Kelsey Timmerman states,TOMS focuses on fixing the problem of shoelessness. However, the real problem isn’t shoelessness, Timmerman points out, but poverty.

The TOMS method of charity is highly impractical and ineffective in the long term. While giving away shoes seems compassionate and just at first glance, it not only fails to address poverty but it also encourages people to view social action like something as passing as a fashion trend.  Socially conscious consumerism is problematic, for it doesn’t relieve people of their self-driven consumerism, nor does it make a purchase of shoes less selfish.

As consumers, we need to encourage companies like TOMS to engage in the long-term alleviation of poverty. They would do well to take some business-model tips from smaller and more effective companies, like soleRebels, an indigenous, Ethiopia-based fair trade shoe business that creates local jobs, provides health and education benefits to its workers, and functions sustainably to allow the local economy to flourish. The shoes are made for Westerners, but the model is mutually beneficial for both the local workers and the end user, who enjoys a socially responsible product. That’s not charity or philanthropy. That’s just good business. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, social entrepreneur and founder of soleRebels, articulates her philosophy this way: “If you give a kid shoes, they wear out or they grow out of them, and then what do they have? If you give the kid’s parents a job, the whole family will always have shoes.”

The first African brand to successfully franchise itself internationally, soleRebels has stand-alone retail stores in Africa as well as Asia and Europe, with plans to open others in North America in the next couple years. The company repurposes materials like car and truck tires to make sturdy but flexible soles and incorporates sustainable materials such as Abyssinian hemp and koba. Local heritage artisans, many of them women, hand spin and loom every meter of the fabrics used, and rather than outsourcing in any way, soleRebels employees conceive, design, and develop everything in their own workshop in Addis Ababa facilities right in the community.

TOMS has acted as a catalyst to help us remember the problem of poverty.  But TOMS must modify its business model to aim beyond fashion, beyond “shoelessness,” and work to feed local economies. That’s the only way to save lives, change minds, and open doors for millions around the planet.

Christopher Hutton is a freelance writer. He currently interns at Rivendell Sanctuary in Bloomington, Minn., and blogs at Liter8.net.

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