Toms Founder Addresses Critics and Shows Path to Learning

Critics of Toms shoes say that the solution does little to address the root causes and problems of poverty at best and at worst can damage local businesses. The online conversations by academics, bloggers (including myself) and NGO workers have continued for years with little response from TOMS.

Critics of TOMS shoes say the group’s solution of donating shoes to the poor for every pair it sells in the West does little to address the root causes of poverty. At its worst, this practice damages local businesses in poor countries. The online conversations by academics, bloggers (including myself) and NGO workers have continued for years with little response from TOMS.

Now founder Blake Mycoskie wants to talk about the criticisms. He addresses the issues head-on in a long article in Fast Company. He says that he did not want to engage in the discussion online because the medium doesn’t lend itself to real debate and he doubted his detractors wanted a genuine dialogue.

“How can we make ourselves feel better?” asks Scott Gilmore, the executive director of the not-for-profit Peace Dividend Trust . “This is the power of self-congratulatory smugness, of saying, ‘I’m better than you because I’m helping somebody.’ But the people who lose out are ironically the ones they say they’re trying to help.”

“I’ve learned that the keys to poverty alleviation are education and jobs. And we now have the resources to put investment behind this,” Mycoskie told Fast Company. “Maybe five years from now, we’ll be able to say it’s really good for business. But the motivator now is, How can we have more impact? At the end of the day, if we can create jobs and do one-for-one, that’s the holy grail.”

He says he’s taking the idea of job creation seriously, starting with a factory in Ethiopia and plans to expand to India, Kenya and Haiti. Not only that, TOMS is testing whether its shoe drops have an actual impact.

In August, researchers from the University of San Francisco are expected to release results of a two-year study, funded by a $225,000 Toms grant, of giveaways in El Salvador.

The distribution of shoes is much more targeted now, he says. Examples include working with Partners in Health to incentivize parents to bring their children to clinics for regular check-ups and shipping winter boots, as opposed to shoes, to children in India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and more.

Fast Company also went to some of the communities that benefited from shoe drops. People spoke highly of the 2010 shoe drop in one Argentine community, but its development progress is closely tied to government programs, not the shoes. On the other hand, local businesses seem unaffected. A visit to a local shoe factory revealed that workers there were not aware of TOMS and believe the drop had no impact on sales.

“TOMS will never be a perfect company. Sometimes as entrepreneurs, we think of things and we sell them to ourselves. But I’ve learned so much along the way, and we want to think in a more holistic way about our impact,” says Mycoskie.

At the same time, TOMS is looking to expand to other services and areas of development. Research published later this summer probably won’t quell the critics even if it shows impact, but how will it impact TOMS if the results show that the model is not working?

Read the full article here.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.