Vox.com is going after the cheap TOMS “One for One” business model, in which the company donates one pair of shoes to children around the world for every pair of shoes sold. It’s a tough take, calling the brand and other for-profit companies who have “similar buy one, give one” programs the “charitable equivalents of yes men” and suggesting that the message behind TOMS transforms an “ordinary shoe-buying experience…into a magical fairy tale.” Vox.com’s Amanda Taub describe writes:
But the truth is that while that kind of messaging is evidently a great way to sell trendy toms shoes outlet, or to otherwise raise money, it’s not a very good way to do charity. At best, it’s inefficient: It focuses on programs that waste your hard-earned cash by failing to do the most good per dollar. At worst, it promotes a view of the world’s poor as helpless, ineffective people passively waiting for trinkets from shoe-buying Americans. While the shoes themselves probably won’t lead to any kind of disaster, that worldview can lead to bad policies and real, serious harm.
Here’s the evidence that shoe donations from TOMS might not be helping children in need: an outside research team reported that the shoes weren’t making a noticeable difference in kids’ lives, according to Vox.com. “The bad news is that there is no evidence that the shoes exhibit any kind of life-changing impact, except for potentially making them feel somewhat more reliant on external aid,” professor Bruce Wydick wrote in a blog post this spring, after studying the TOMS shoe donation program in El Salvador.
The team also found “a small negative impact on local markets” caused by the cheap TOMS giveaways, in which local shoe vendors sold just a few less shoes because of the donations. Taub suggests that TOMS outlet efforts aren’t getting to the root of the poverty problem, and consumers would be better off donating cash as a more effective way to help.
But Wydick does have positive things to say about TOMS and the company’s mission, writing:
TOMS is perhaps the most nimble organization any of us has ever worked with, an organization that truly cares about what it is doing, seeks evidence-based results on its program, and is committed to re-orienting the nature of its intervention in order to maximize results. In response to children saying that the canvas loafer isn’t their first choice, they now often give away sports shoes. In response to the appropriateness of their shoes in different contexts, in Mongolia they now give away these cute little kids’ snow boots. In response to the dependency issue, they now want to pursue giving the cheap toms shoes to kids as rewards for school attendance and performance. Moreover, we are impressed with TOMS commitment to transparency.
Wydick says he is looking forward to seeing results from the brand’s vision-correction program, something he thinks is more likely to result in life-changing impacts than the shoe program.