we heart TOMS (but…)

24 Jun

My favorite TOMS have finally worn out. As you can see above, the sole has worn completely through and the fabric is beginning to poke through. Since TOMS are practically the most popular shoe around right now, I’m not going to tell you about the brand or “ooh and aww” over their charitable mission which you already know. While I still love TOMS (especially my new wedges), I am thinking of branching out for the following reasons:

1. Durability

I bought my Toms over winter break which means they have lasted about 6 months. While I do wear them a lot, and they don’t make claims about being super durable, this is still pretty ridiculous! If I had to buy a new pair twice per year I would end up with a LOT of old shoes.

2. Life Cycle Analysis

I’ve searched a lot over the internet for whether old Toms can be composted or recycled and I haven’t found anything specific. It seems that the canvas is made partly of recycled plastic, so that wouldn’t decompose, and the sole is made of recycled rubber, so it’s probably not recyclable either. I would really like for them to work on making a compostable shoe. They wouldn’t have to change much, using a natural latex bottom and biodegradable canvas upper and sole wouldn’t change the look or durability of the shoes.

TOMS does have a section on their Facebook page on repurposing old TOMS, but you repurposing things into knick-knacks that you don’t actually need isn’t true recycling.

3. “One-to-One” Criticism

There has been some criticism of their “one-to-one” model. The blog Good Intentions makes some good points:

  • It’s quintessential Whites in Shining Armor.
  • It’s doing things “for” people not “with” people.
  • They allow people to pay to travel with the distribution trips as shoe fitters thereby promoting poverty tourism.
  • They promote the “awareness raising” activity – One Day Without Shoes – which is really just a marketing ploy.
  • They ship in goods for free that outcompete local goods, it’s a short-term solution that could create long-term problems.
  • There are many better and cheaper ways to get shoes on the feet of the poor.
I think the 5th point is the most important, but I have also been suspicious of the awareness activities and their promotion of TOMS clubs on college campuses–they are a for-profit company, do they need students volunteering their time to advertise for them further? If TOMS’ intentions were purely altruistic, they would be supporting general humanitarian clubs that may or may not include TOMS sales in their activities.

Here is a great quote from AidWatch,

TOMS is literally a prime example of what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “cultural capitalism”: you combine acts of goodwill with acts of consumption (Zizek sees this as a sort of personal redemption for being a consumer).

Slavoj Zizek on TOMS and the ethics of charitable giving.

So can the “one-for-one” or “BOGO” model work? I think it can, but I’m not sure if TOMS is at that level. Alive and Kicking, a charity that has a “one-for-one” program with soccer balls tells us why are confident their program works and lists the most important aspects of a successful and truly impactful BOGO program:
  1. Ensure there is a legitimate need, that cannot be met by the local economy, for any products being donated in kind
  2. Seek guidance from local people to ensure products are designed to fit local needs
  3. Carefully plan to whom and how products are donated to avoid creating unrealistic expectations
  4. Produce or source the products under fair wage conditions, in the region to be assisted, to ensure both the bought and given gifts have an economic impact on the area
  5. Where possible, ensure the materials and component parts for the gifts are also sourced from local producers

So what is a conscious consumer to do?

I’ve searched around for a good summer shoe that has a good social or environmental background and I’ve found a company that also makes an Alpargata shoe, but has a different social background.

Enter Pauline in Love, a company (with a bit of a floozy name, yes) that is part of The Working World (TWW), a US micro-financing organization that supports worker-owned co-ops in Argentina, Nicaragua, and New York. Rather than “fair trade,” TWW promotes “true trade, fair trade with complete transparency.”

What’s great about their site is that you can see the actual people who own the factory where these shoes are made and even a breakdown of where every dollar of your shoe purchase goes. With these $39 shoes (cheaper than TOMS), a full $25 goes to the factory. This is unheard-of in an industry where workers usually get less than 10% of the sale price of a shoe. Another $6 goes to the microcredit fund TWW works with, the La Base Fund. I just ordered a pair today, and I’m interested in how they will compare to TOMS in comfort and durability. (The price in the figure below is less than the price I paid which I’m guessing is a difference in taxes/fees.)

Workers from the Pupore shoe factory.

I encourage you to look at their site, there’s a lot of information on it because of just how transparent this organization is. You can read the story of how the factories closed after the Argentinian recession and how the workers now own the operation. There are other co-ops in the TWW network, including ones that make shirts, balloons, and dog clothes (I love how random that is).

In closing, I would like to add that I did not mean this as an attack on TOMS. I still like the company, and I don’t meant to attack any one who wears their shoes (hey, I do too!). I am always trying to make sure my money has the greatest positive impact that it can, and sometimes this is difficult. One reason why The Working World is such a good program is because they spend so little on advertising, but this also means I had to do some hunting to find them. However I think it is entirely worth it to support people by working with them, not giving to them. Some closing words from TWW’s site:

Meet the people behind what you buy.
Share the alter-globalization of true trade with a friend.
Change the equation.
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2 Responses to “we heart TOMS (but…)”

  1. Emily Fletcher June 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Lorraine! Many of these are issues that I have found with TOMS, too. I got a pair for Christmas, and by early April there were holes in the tops. I still wear them, but it doesn’t seem very sustainable to make shoes that start to fall apart after several months of normal use.

    The “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” YouTube video that you linked is incredible. I don’t necessarily agree with the whole thing, but we watched it in one of my classes during the spring and it was probably the single most thought-provoking thing we saw or read in that class.

    Thanks for posting! This reminds of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

    • Lorraine June 25, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

      Aw thanks for the great comment. I liked that video too, that guy seems to make some pretty inflammatory remarks. There’s a youtube video where he says vegetarians will degenerate into monkeys or something. Have you watched the one on capitalism/choice? It’s pretty intense too. I hope you’re doing well this summer, won’t be back to Seattle until next spring or summer (wow I didn’t even realize that until now) so it’ll be a long time til I see you again!

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