TOMS Shoes: Good Marketing – Bad Aid
Posted on October 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm
Despite all that I’ve written about the problems caused by donating goods overseas, the most frequent question I get from readers is what do I think about TOMS Shoes. I don’t know whether they’re uncertain because TOMS uses the Buy One Give One (BOGO) model instead donating used goods, or if it’s because TOMS has gotten such good PR for their program.
To answer everyone’s question, here’s how I feel. TOMS Shoes is a good marketing tool, but it’s not good aid. Here’s why:
- It’s quintessential Whites in Shining Armor.
- It’s doing things “for” people not “with” people.
- They allow people to pay to travel with the distribution trips as shoe fitters thereby promoting poverty tourism.
- They promote the “awareness raising” activity – One Day Without Shoes – which is really just a marketing ploy. I’ve launched a counter-campaign this year, A Day Without Dignity.
- They ship in goods for free that outcompete local goods, it’s a short-term solution that could create long-term problems.
- I challenge anyone to find a single country in the world where there are not shoes for sale in the marketplace. There are many better and cheaper ways to get shoes on the feet of the poor.
Unfortunately the launch of a copycat program by Sketchers called BOBS Shoes has set off a flurry of posts criticizing BOBS for their bad form in copying TOMS while praising TOMS. Now I have to admit TOMS has done a great job at marketing, they’re quite well known. But good marketing does not guarantee good aid.
It’s extremely frustrating to see so many organizations that advise donors or promote corporate social responsibility sing the praises of TOMS Shoes as though the strength of the marketing campaign is the only thing that’s important. It gives me very little hope that things will improve any time soon. Before anyone asks, the same criticism goes for all of these other shoe programs:
- Soles4Souls – Slate recently reported the CEO makes $500,000/ year
- Flipflops for Families
- 50,000 shoes – Project Haiti
If there were more BOGO programs where the shoes were actually made locally – creating local jobs – I’d be much more willing to get behind the program.
Update April 10, 2012: Anyone interested in this topic might want to click on the following two links.
TOMS Shoes: A closer look – a podcast by Tiny Spark investigates the history of TOMS and some of the controversy surrounding TOMS.
One for One? – a blog post by a missionary in Haiti that encounters donated TOMS shoes for sale on the open market in Haiti.
Update: Here is the video for A Day Without Dignity, a counter-campaign to TOMS’ One Day Without Shoes. There were more than 60 posts written in support of A Day Without Dignity, read all of them here.
Update: One of TOMS “local partners” is World Vision, which itself has been the focus of criticism from this blog and others for their use of gifts-in-kind. While this helps World Vision lower their overhead ratio, World Vision has not proven either the need or the impact of the gift-in-kind programs.
Update: I have had so many people write to either ask me where they should buy shoes or to tell me of a socially conscience shoe manufacturer that I’ve created a post to track the suggestions, Socially conscience shoes.
Update: It appears TOMS produces shoes in Ethiopia and China. See the comments below for more information on that. If you own a pair of TOMS, look to see which country they were made in.
Guides by Good Intentions are Not Enough
Other Posts on TOMS Shoes:
Shoes for Business: The unintended consequences of doing good – The Harvard Crimson
New blog post! Free of charge! – truths about elephants
A spectrum of social entrepreneurship: TOMS, Indego, and Henry Ford – Short Sentences
TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods – smorgasblurb
A tryst with TOMS – Aid Watch
Do You Cause More Harm than Good by Giving TOMS Shoes to the Poor? – Zacstravaganza!
TOMS Shoes: out-competing local entrepreneurs since 2006 – Short Sentences
Toms Shoes not the right fit - The Point Weekly
Blog posts specifically about shoe donations
Enough with the shoes donations - Good Intentions are Not Enough
What IS it with the SHOES? – Tales from the Hood
Donating shoes and other aid fads - Good Intentions are Not Enough
Nobody wants your old shoes: How not to help in Haiti - AidWatch guest post by Alanna Shaikh
We’re shocked to discover Jessica Simpson doesn’t read our blog - AidWatch on the 50,000 shoe project
Three bad ideas for helping Haiti – Blood and Milk
Blog posts about in-kind donations in general
The problem with giving free food to hungry people – Good Intentions are Not Enough
6 questions you should ask before donating goods overseas – Good Intentions are Not Enough
The worst in-kind donations – Good Intentions are Not Enough
Good donorship and some early lessons learned from the earthquake response in Haiti – guest post on Good Intentions are not enough
Haiti: Help with money, not stuff – Global Post
Guidelines for appropriate International Disaster Donations – Center of International Disaster Information (CIDI)