TOMS’s buy-one-give-one business model is as popular as it is oft-copied. But Cheryl Davenport of Mission Measurement, a strategic consulting firm based in Chicago, wishes the label had more soul. In a recent piece at Fast Co.Exist, Davenport waxes critical about the disconnect between the footwear label’s feel-good mission and its inability to enact measurable social change. Rather, she says, the charitable act of donating a free pair of shoes serves as “little more than a short-term fix in a system in need of long-term, multi-faceted economic development, health, sanitation, and education solutions.”
WHAT’S IN A SHOE?
TOMS made its debut in 2006 after Blake Mycoskie, an entrepreneur from Arlington, TX, witnessed the extreme poverty and health conditions in Argentina’s poorest villages. Noticing the number of children walking around barefoot, Mycoskie decided to reinvent the traditional Argentine alpargata as a means to provide shoes to the world’s neediest. Since then, the company has expanded its line to include eyewear.
Instead of building the economies of developing countries, TOMS succeeds only to make consumers feel morally superior.
But TOMS isn’t designed to build the economies of developing countries, Davenport says. Rather, its goal is to make first-world consumers feel morally superior. “Mr. Mycoskie didn’t ask villagers what they needed most or talk to experts about how to lift villages out of long-term poverty,” she says. “Instead, he built a company that felt good and that was good enough for him and TOMS’s nascent consumers.”
From a business perspective, the company is also vulnerable to what Davenport describes as a “finite and unpredictable market for the feel good value proposition.” In other words, consumers are fickle creatures. With the growing number of brands adopting TOMS’s central paradigm, TOMS will likely fall out of favor without a more distinctive—and less replicable—product offering.
“And therein lies the real peril,” she says. “Those ‘helped’ by TOMS are, in the long-term, no more able to afford shoes or address the real social, economic, and health issues that they face than they were before. Once their free shoes wear out in a couple years, the children TOMS ‘helped’ will be just as susceptible to the health and economic perils associated with bare feet as they were before.”
A BROADER MISSION
TOMS, Davenport says, can do better. She imagines the company creating jobs and building economies by sourcing shoes from local businesses in the countries it seeks to empower. “I imagine a TOMS that eradicates hookworms within an entire country by giving not only the gift of shoes, but also the lasting impact of infrastructure and health facilities,” Davenport adds.
Davenport imagines the company creating jobs and building economies by sourcing shoes from local businesses.
James Poulous, a columnist for Forbes also chimed into the debate. Although he suggests that TOMS may be little more than a “doomed vanity project,” Poulos asserts that the “virtues of charity don’t translate very well from a person-to-person practice to an institution-to-group practice.” These so-called “charity aggregators,” he says, can filter out the soul of charity, which is found in the act of personally, directly, and physically giving gratuitous aid or comfort to another human being.” It’s that human connection that makes TOMS’s mission resonate with such a broad demographic, even more so, perhaps, than a UNICEF or an Oxfam.
Not that exploring any unmet potential isn’t a worthy exercise for a business leader, he adds.”Thinking about the future success of your business as a tool to increase human flourishing is consonant with the basic rules of the free market—and it’s always in fashion.”
One point neither commentator makes, however, is the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty. Shoes allow children to go to school or avoid illnesses that might result in extended absences. While aid and trade aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, TOMS’ singularity of purpose might also be its strength.
So is TOMS yielding to calls to step away from its one-for-one model? “We at TOMS welcome all opinions and points of view, and are constantly trying to learn and improve our approach,” Sebastian Fries, the company’s chief giving officer, tells Ecouterre. “That said, we are extremely proud of what we have accomplished through the one-for-one model in such a short amount of time, and remain committed to giving shoes and helping give sight to people in need around the world.”
Looks like TOMS is staying the course, at least for now.