By Jeppe Damberg
July 19th, 2017
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A company which helps “a person in need” with every purchase of their product. Sounds good right? Companies like eyewear producer Warby Parker, Mealshare, Nouri Bar and TOMS have become recognized brands by making “changemaking” possible through the “Buy One, Give One” model. TOMS promise to donate one pair of shoes for every pair purchased, and to this day the company has distributed sixty million pairs of shoes, helping socially conscious consumers feel good about providing shoes to a child who needs them. Indeed, the “Buy One, Give One” model has been widely embraced by consumers and businesses alike as an effective model for creating both commercial and social value. However, when examining the social impact of the “Buy One, Give One” model its flaws become rather obvious.
“What’s wrong with giving away shoes” you might be thinking. “At least they’re doing something”. However, in the case of “Buy One, Give One” that “something” can do more harm than good. An increasing number of foreign aid practitioners and agencies are recognizing that charitable gifts from a broad can distort developing markets and undermine local businesses by creating an entirely unsustainable aid-based economy. By undercutting local prices, Western donations often hurt the farmers, workers, traders, and sellers whose success is critical to lifting entire communities out of poverty. In not supporting the local manufacturing of shoes TOMS allows for its giving to effectively hurt local economies and perpetuate the sort of poverty that their mission is there to alleviate. That means every free shoe donated actually works against the long-term development goals of the communities we are trying to help. Indeed, Ashoka, the organization which works with UWCM’s YSE program and aims to empower young entrepreneurs around the world, wrote an article in The New York Times claiming that the “Buy One, Give One” model does little to address the root causes of poverty, and may even reduce demand for locally-produced products.
Giving a child a pair of shoes is a short term solution to, and ignores the reasons why, the child has no shoes. Not only is TOMS giving canvas shoes to children in areas that are subject to heavy and repeated rainfall (where canvas will fall apart quickly) but children quickly grow out of shoes. This leaves the receivers of the TOMS shoe drop in the same position or, at best, with a pair of worn out shoes to small for their feet after a short amount of time. Furthermore, there is some debate on the actual need for shoes in the areas targeted by TOMS. Though TOMS and the “Buy One, Give One” model has had an impact on increasing the presence of the social responsibility of business in the public consciousness, it is difficult to argue that the model has had actual social impact.
It appears that companies like TOMS who exercise the ”Buy One, Give One” model weren’t designed to build economies of developing countries, but rather to make western consumers feel good when purchasing their product. This is clear when looking at TOMS origin story on its website, where the founder Blake Mycoskie writes that barefoot children in Argentina made him realise the need for shoes. Mycoskie did not ask the villagers he visited what they needed the most or talk to experts about how to lift villages out of long-term poverty. Instead, he built a company that felt good and that was good enough for him and TOMS’s consumers.
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.
The world doesn’t need another advocacy day. We don’t need a day without shoes. We need practical, long-term solutions–the kind that only business can engineer. The good people at Toms should keep their shoes on. They’ll need them if they’re going to find solutions to these intractable problems.
Jeppe Damberg was a student at United World College Maastricht 2016-2018. He founded the Flying Dutchman in 2017.