Guest post by John Poitevent
I've dreaded writing this post. I confess, I own a pair of TOMS. Most people I know own a pair of TOMS. Because of this, your response to this article might be defensive, or annoyed or to just write it off as hype. I beg you not to. If the church is going to actually make a significant impact on the lives of the poor, in a way that brings God glory and proclaims the gospel, we have to start taking things like this seriously. Good intentions are not enough, and they can actually do damage to a community. If you really want to educate yourself on how to do serve the poor well, check out whenhelpinghurts.org. I would also really encourage you to watch the Restore videos. In the mean time, consider this...
From The Harvard Crimson
Although TOMS likely has good intentions, its donation strategy may negatively impact the communities it seeks to support. Like the litany of organizations that donate shoes, clothes, and other items to developing countries, TOMS may be undermining the development of local businesses. And while making in-kind donations benefits consumers in the short run, stifling local industry and increasing unemployment in this way will intensify poverty in the long-term.Read the entire article at The Harvard Crimson.
Another issue with organizations like TOMS is that donating shoes can be financially inefficient. Shoes are typically inexpensive in developing nations—in Mumbai, as in Port-au-Prince, one pair is sold for as little as $2. Shipping a used pair of shoes often costs more; for instance, Soles4Soles solicits donations of $3-$5 to ship a pair of shoes to Haiti. In addition to hurting local business, in-kind donations sometimes simply waste money. We could actually save money and simultaneously help stimulate local economies by just keeping our old shoes and instead buying new ones from community-based vendors.
It is critical that we consider these types of unintended consequences of charitable giving. By pinpointing these problems, we can determine more effective ways of helping communities in need. For instance, TOMS might do better to alter its business model. As one blogger suggests, “Instead of donating a pair of shoes for each pair purchased, take the cash equivalent of that donation (the production cost of the shoe plus the shipping/handling/storage/distribution costs) and instead sink that into local shoe manufacture.” Rather than providing imported handouts, TOMS could partner with local shoe producers to provide low-cost or free shoes to children in need. In doing so, it could support local entrepreneurship and still fulfill its mission of helping children who would otherwise go barefoot.
As consumers of “socially conscious” products, we need to be aware of the impact of our purchases. In a culture where giving back through consumption is increasingly popular, and where myriad companies market items that purportedly help those in need, we should be cautious and deliberate about how we choose to support international development. In some cases, what at first seems like a good business idea could turn out to be detrimental to the communities we hope to help. Even as something as innocuous as buying a pair of shoes could do more harm than good. In the long term, if we want to alleviate poverty and its associated problems—like the lack of shoes for children—individual consumers as well as organizations like TOMS would do better to support directly local businesses for economic growth. It is up to us to invest responsibly in social change.
In case you're wondering if this is just one person's perspective, check out these articles on TOMS from Forbes, Fast Company, Time, GoodIntents.org, aidwatch.com, Made in USA Blog and WhyDev.org.