TOMS Shoes One Step Ahead in Success, One Step Behind in Aid

TOMS Shoes and its founder and chief shoe giver Blake Mycoskie in many ways define 21st century social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility. The young, prominent, sustainable, and successful for-profit company has given over 1 million pairs of new shoes to children in need through its global partners as of September 2010. Their One for One approach is an inspirational business model as well as admirable global social justice movement. With every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a child in need.

But, despite its success and vision, TOMS falls short in fighting systemic global poverty. Moreover, the larger and collective developed world should reevaluate their role in addressing global issues. 

TOMS shoes owners understand that they are part of a larger global social movement fighting against easily transmittable infections and diseases, such as hookworm, podoconiosis, jiggers, and tetanus. Such diseases, caused by persistent contact with irritant soils, cause physical and cognitive impairment. Going shoeless is a symptom of an individual, village, or country confronted by poverty. In many developing countries, children walk miles to school, to gather clean water, or to attain medical help. Shoes are critical to physical and cognitive development, leading to better health, education, and opportunity – all critical to breaking the cycle of poverty. TOMS has recently expanded into eyewear, replicating the One for One model for sunglasses to combat blindness and poor vision in developing countries. 

In any social movement, the first course of action is to raise awareness and educate, and TOMS is most certainly successful. TOMS organizes ongoing community events for supporters and enthusiasts to continually be a part of the One for One movement and unique sartorial culture. This includes volunteer-led campus clubsthe One Day Without Shoes eventShoe Drops, and How We Wear Them, online sharing of favorite TOMS photos and stories. 

In 2009, TOMS and Blake Mycoskie were the recipients of the Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence. The award celebrates companies’ commitment to corporate social responsibility, innovation, exemplary practices, and democratic values worldwide. Nonetheless, is TOMS doing all it can do to exhibit corporate excellence? In other words, is TOMS putting its best foot forward in corporate social responsibility or are we waiting for the proverbial "other shoe to drop?"

TOMS gives shoes in twenty-three countries but produces shoes in only three – China, Argentina, and Ethiopia. They strive to "set up sustainable giving partnerships that allow us to give repeatedly as children grow.” But, why is "giving" such a surefire method? TOMS' approach of giving calls to mind the fisherman adage. “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.” Rather than giving shoes, why not empower and enable a village to produce shoes so that all will be safer, wealthier, and more invested in climbing the ladder of economic development? Why doesn't the company employ more workers in more factories? Why not utilize microfinancing to leverage production and expand markets? Surely, a constant production, marketing, and exporting of shoes would significantly impact the poverty cycle.

TOMS is very much deserving of its accolades, popularity, and success. We should all strive to make ending poverty as central to our lives as Mycoskie has done. Equally important, the company demonstrates that small business is not dead. Indeed, TOMS is a radical, idealistic company that is simultaneously expanding in purpose, compassion, and community organization. Businesses like TOMS shoes are no doubt a step in the right direction towards combating poverty, having attained a heightened social consciousness of their cause and leading to the amelioration of thousands of lives.

However, simply giving shoes to children in need does not address the greater and more urgent challenge. Highly developed and consumer-driven societies fall short in addressing the roots of this generation’s greatest challenges. Businesses, governments, and everyday citizens alike can do more to eradicate poverty and other pressing social issues, not simply treat them. In ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop,’ it is our ingenuity, critical thinking, and commitment to social change that we are waiting on.

To an extent, the TOMS vision of social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility is holding up its end of the deal. Can we take their vision and success to the next level?

Photo Credit: tjstaab

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Danny Obeler

Originally from Chicagoland, Danny currently lives in Washington, DC, working at a local community center organizing high-impact and hands-on service projects. He looks forward to exploring social justice issues with the DC community while repairing, renovating, and rebuilding low-income family housing, public schools, and other vital community spaces. Danny most recently served in the AmeriCorps program at the Center for Changing Lives, where he assisted the low-income and homeless population of Chicago’s west side through employment and financial services. Danny is also a guitarist and singer/songwriter with The Continental Buffalo.

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