Tom Shoes hit the market with a remarkable promise—for every pair of shoes sold, one pair would be donated to in-need communities in Africa. The pledge was no doubt made with noble intentions. Excess in wealthy countries would be used to offset the clothing insecurities of developing nations. However, what happens when the problem is misdiagnosed? Like prescribing an ice bath for someone with a cold, sometimes it makes the issue at hand much worse.
As this blog will examine, it wasn’t that Africa had a “shoe” issue. Their complex economic situation was exacerbated by “philanthropic” supply chains that flooded their country with cheap goods. This made it next to impossible for honest clothing businesses to take hold.
Sometimes, lending a hand is the right thing to do. In other cases, however, you may end up harming a lot more than you help. To demonstrate this, we will look at Tom’s Shoes and the complex situation that its mission (and their customers) formed in African manufacturing.
Who Was Tom?
“Tom” was not a cobbler by trade. In fact, Tom doesn’t actually exist. The founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” was a reality TV star by the name of Blake Mycoskie and a contestant on “Fox’s Sexiest Bachelor.” After seeing firsthand the poverty of Argentina, Blake decided to form Tom’s Shoe Company in America so he could send back goods that believed poor regions genuinely needed.
By interpreting and modernizing a low-cost style of shoe known locally as an Alpargata, he began developing the Shoes for Tomorrow, later known as Tomorrow’s Shoes, and eventually, TOMS. At the same time, he developed the marketing and message behind his brand—buy one, give one.
Sadly for Blake, his business acumen was not as gregarious as his desire to give back. After launching two more philanthropic brands to help stem the bleeding of his flagship brand of shoes, the company sought debt relief options. It was eventually acquired by creditors in 2019.
As we mentioned before, today’s examination is not of the business ethics that led to its demise but rather the humanitarian ethics of the company and why they were problematic from the outset.
Why The Model Was Wrong
While it’s not wrong to see suffering and wish to change it, the way Blake had gone about solving a complex problem with Tom’s was laughable when examined honestly. When you think of a developing nation, is sending shoes really the best way to help out? Put another way, if someone has a bleeding cut, is the solution to give them a new shirt since they’ve messed theirs up?
TOMS customers fell into the same trap as many when they consider developing nations—an imperialistic understanding of the culture. Contrary to popular belief, most Africans and South Americans live in towns and cities like our own—not huts in the wilderness. As such, shoes don’t skirt the issue, they exacerbate it. How can a clothing manufacturer survive in a market where goods are delivered free and of low quality?
Think of the influx of poorly-made goods from overseas that are destined for landfills after every major holiday. Goods no one asked for are often damaging for the communities that must receive them. (Especially after real disasters occur where volunteers must parse the useless goods.)
Imperial Legacies and Self-Sustainability
Africa has economic problems, not shoe problems. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts in her writing on Nigeria and cultural imagery, “I don’t think stereotypes are problematic because they’re false. That’s too simple. Stereotypes are problematic because they’re incomplete.”
In the “philanthropic” industry, marketers will leverage “poverty porn” to drive false awareness and pull donations. In many cases, developing nations are excitedly exploring community involvement and self-activation opportunities. (Not goods dumping where outsiders “solve” their problems.)
When you remove a community’s self-sustainability, you remove their chances for bettering themselves on their terms. In short, the only people who are comforted by the trade are the egos of American donors.
Simple problems rarely are simple in practice. Our search for ethical natural supplements has forced us to examine many of our beliefs about how the world works and the difference we can make as suppliers.
When you consider ethical consumption, consider that the most significant insights for what a community needs come from that community—not an outsider. That’s why we work with our distributors, packagers, and ingredient suppliers. At every step of our supply chain in creating the one-stop online store for ethical nutritional supplies.
As always, we at Ethical Inc. thank you for reading. We invite you to contact us with any questions or topics you may be curious to see explored.