by Kate Patterson
It’s not very hard to look around any public place these days and point out several people wearing TOMS shoes. I am no stranger to the brand either, having owned several pairs for the last three or so years. But I recently reflected on just how big the TOMS phenomenon has become when it also dawned on me how annoyed I am that every day I get spam emails from them after purchasing a pair of their shoes online about three years ago. I eventually came to the realization that the TOMS brand might not be the miracle company that so many people are claiming it to be.
By now, most people have heard about TOMS and will have a general understanding of their business model. For every pair of shoes purchased in Canada, the US and other developed countries where they are sold, a pair of shoes is given to someone in a developing country that doesn’t have shoes. Blake Mycoskie founded the company in 2006 after he traveled to Argentina and allegedly saw severe economic disparities that he wanted to do something about. Seems like a pretty good idea right? I thought so too, at first. Not only do they make one feel good about the fifty or so dollars being spent on a pair, they are very comfortable, and recently have also become very fashionable.
The problem is that sometimes we in the developed world have a ‘whites in shining armor’ kind of attitude towards the developing world. It makes us feel better to make such a purchase, while at the same time allowing us to continue on with our consumption of consumer products. What is sometimes forgotten is that developing countries do have thriving local manufacturing and market economies that may actually be undermined by a flood of foreign aid. And in fact, TOMS creates the illusion that there are no shoes to be purchased in some of these countries when there often are shoes available through some very productive local markets. By intruding upon people in an attempt to save them from poverty, the incentive to produce is destroyed and local merchants are put out of business. When they go out of business, they can’t afford to buy shoes or other goods for their families, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.