I’ve found that the old phrase “for every action comes an equal and opposite reaction,” holds eerily true in most situations. Last semester, I did some research on the popular shoe brand, TOMS, and wrote an article praising their philanthropy in helping put shoes on the feet of less fortunate children. However, what I failed to consider, that is now being brought to my attention, is the negative reaction of this originally generous idea.
TOMS has been selling their signature canvas footwear since the company’s formation in 2006. Instead of simply satisfying customers with their trendy shoes, however, TOMS policy of “One for One” is what they’ve come to be known for. As advertised, with every pair bought, TOMS donates a new pair of shoes to a needy child. On the surface, this seems to be a fantastic and extremely thoughtful idea, but like most great ideas, a downside lies beneath the surface.
While TOMS gifts young children with comfortable shoes, they’re simultaneously taking business away from the local shoe industry; a fact that I most likely did not consider. Contrary to popular belief, shoemakers do exist in the small towns tucked away in Ghana, Cambodia, and Iraq, just a few of the countries to which TOMS donates. Unfortunately, when TOMS comes to town, the shoemakers who depended on the business of local patrons suffer greatly. TOMS boasts over a million shoes donated, indicating a vast number of sales stripped from struggling shop owners.
Another layer of this problem can be peeled back to reflect the negative long term effects of the donations. While TOMS is putting shoes on the feet of children presently, they certainly won’t be around forever, leaving the underprivileged in the same state as before. A dependency on TOMS, while convenient at the time, denies the communities a functioning business model in which the townspeople rely on the local businesses and vice versa. By disrupting this natural cycle, TOMS is dooming the shoe industry in the towns it visits both presently and for the future.
The true core of the issue boils down to more than the need for shoes, the larger issue of poverty would be a more helpful problem to address. What companies like TOMS try to do is tackle smaller issues, and as we found out, that plan is riddled with flaws. Now of course, taking on poverty is no small feat, but more productive changes that would lead to self-sufficiency would be more effective in the long run. For example, working on creating jobs would provide adequate income for people to purchase shoes from the local businesses, allowing the business cycle to function as it should.
It’s definitely difficult to argue against free shoes for underprivileged children, but I understand now the ramifications of the seemingly harmless act. Short term solutions are convenient, but unfortunately cannot be carried over in this case into a long term productive plan. If millions of people cannot even afford shoes, larger and more pressing issues clearly need to be addressed when it comes to poverty in third-world countries. With any luck, a more sustainable solution than TOMS will be implemented to change the unfortunate reality of those suffering in poverty.