TOMS is often among the first companies that come to mind when thinking of socially responsible businesses. But how effective is its One for One model, and why is it so silent on sustainability?
TOMS Shoes began with a restless soul, a trip to Argentina, a pair of traditional alpargatas and an idea for a for-profit company that would fight global poverty. It has since become a driving force in the world of social enterprise, infiltrating mainstream fashion with its simple but stylish kicks and providing more than one million needy children with shoes through its feel-good One for One model.
But though TOMS has galvanized millions of customers around its mission, some say that the TOMS model harms the communities it intends to help. Add a troubling lack of supply chain transparency and all of a sudden those warm-fuzzy feelings start to harden. In this week’s Behind the Label, we take a look at TOMS’ sustainability and giving practices to see if the company has earned its position at the top of the social enterprise food chain.
The original premise of TOMS is introduced simply enough:
If you’re new to TOMS, hi, we make shoes, and with every pair purchased, we give a new pair of shoes to a child in need.
TOMS implements its One for One model primarily through partnerships with humanitarian organizations like Partners In Health, IMA World Health, WE International and Goods for Good, as well as through high profile shoe drops coordinated by its non-profit Friends of TOMS arm.
Last June, in a dramatic unveil, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie announced that the company was expanding from a shoe businesses to a broader “One for One” business, starting with the launch of a new eyewear line that provides sight to one person for every one pair of frames purchased, either through medical treatment, prescription glasses or sight-saving surgery.
Since its founding in 2006, TOMS has been particularly successful at engaging with college communities. Through TOMS Campus Clubs, like-minded students can unite around the common values of “conscious consumerism, helping children in need and being heard through their choices” and participate in events like shoe-painting parties and the now-famous One Day Without Shoes, a celebrity-driven campaign that calls upon people to ditch their shoes for 24 hours in order to spread awareness of global shoelessness.
Through TOMS’ giving department, more than one million pairs of shoes have been distributed across 23 countries, including Argentina, Ethiopia, Haiti and the United States.
By pairing with reputable groups on distribution, TOMS aims to ensure that its aid is not isolated, but rather part of comprehensive development programs targeting healthcare and education. Goods for Good founder Melissa Kushner writes that these types of donations can be an effective form of aid, when done right.
After eight years of learning how to best provide goods to those in need, I can safely say that shoes, fabric, school materials as well as other necessities like eyeglasses can have a lasting impact, even after they wear out. Goods provision can be right and when it is, it has far-reaching benefits. For example: Goods for Good has witnessed a 25 percent increase in school attendance by providing students and teachers with re-purposed educational supplies and trained over 200 vulnerable people in the marketable skill of tailoring who in turn created over 24,000 school uniforms for orphans and vulnerable children, based on the gift of surplus fabric.
And TOMS makes a concerted effort to make sure its donations are “done right,” a former employee told EcoSalon. Giving partners are thoroughly vetted and communities thoroughly assessed to ensure that local economies won’t be disrupted by large-scale shoe distribution. Each order of donation shoes is made-to-order so that the giving partner can meet the needs of the children they serve – no surplus product in odd sizes here. And most of the donation shoes are basic black canvas, since black shoes are often required for school uniforms and school uniforms are often required to attend school. TOMS also works to establish long-term relationships through repeat giving, so that new shoes can be provided when old shoes are outgrown or worn out.
More information is available in TOMS’ first-ever Giving Report, published in 2010.
Despite TOMS’ efforts to give responsibly, its One for One model has become a subject of criticism from many in the international development community. In 2011, the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough launched a counter-campaign to One Day Without Shoes called A Day Without Dignity, calling upon aid workers and people from areas that receive shoe drops and aid to speak up against TOMS’ “Whites in Shining Armor” approach to philanthropy.
More than 60 blog posts were contributed to the campaign, including one from Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes, who wrote:
Yes, someone giving you a pair of shoes would sure be nice if you didn’t have a pair. But a job that allows parents to send their kids to school could change your family tree forever.
TOMS is also notoriously vague about the origins of its products, the sustainability of its supply chains and the ethical nature of its business practices. While I couldn’t find any direct links to production information on TOMS.com, a Google search revealed what looks like a hastily thrown together summary of TOMS Manufacturing Practices.
We want our customers to know as much as we do. As part of this effort of increasing transparency, we’ve provided some pictures of our factories in China, Argentina and Ethiopia. Regular visits by our production staff and third party audits ensure not only the product is up to standards, but that our factories provide a clean, safe place to work, fair wages and treatment, and never employ underage labor.
What followed were the three images in the screen shot below.
Mycoskie expands upon his approach to sustainability in a recent Q&A with 360 Magazine:
You hear a lot about sustainability in all different realms now. Definitely on the environmental side, on the business practice side, etc. For me, sustainability is knowing that when I give a child a pair of shoes, that when they wear them out or grow out of them, they’ll be able to get another pair, and another pair. We’re going to keep them in shoes because that allows them to go to school and prevents foot diseases. For us to truly say we’re sustainable, we have to not only build a business so we are allowed to continue to give shoes by selling shoes, but we also build profits so if we have a bad season, we can continue to give shoes.
Mycoskie’s is a valid perspective, though it entirely ignores the environmental and ethical factors that have become inseparable from the sustainability movement. That, TOMS has yet to substantively address.
TOMS is arguably the most successful social enterprise lifestyle brand today, proving that a message about doing good can become a mainstream movement that resonates across demographics. As Timmerman puts it, “step #1 is getting people to give a shit.”
The company is crystal clear about its intentions: to effect social change through a One for One charity model. No mention of pioneering sustainable manufacturing methods, or using zero-waste pattern design, or creating job opportunities in the communities they adopt. Just One for One charity. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that focus.
What I do find troublesome, though, is that TOMS continues to create a movement around conscious consumerism and being heard through choices, yet it continues to hedge questions about the sustainable and ethical nature of its manufacturing practices. Most conscious consumers are as conscientious about the origins of their products as they are about the impact made through their purchases. Greater transparency about TOMS’ production processes would ease the concerns of many who want to buy into the One for One movement, as well as validate the company’s reputation as a pioneer in the world of socially responsible businesses – assuming, of course, that TOMS has nothing to hide.