TOMS Shoes Listens to its Critics

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An announcement came out of the Clinton Global Initiative last week. It didn’t involve lofty issues of world peace or universal access to education. But the announcement was important and it’s worth noting here.

It came from Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes. Mycoskie’s company promises that if you buy a pair of its shoes, it will give a pair to a child in need. It’s been a wildly successful business model; ten million pairs have been sold around the world and across the United States. It seems everyone from Hollywood stars to Brooklyn hipsters are wearing them.

Until now, TOMS shoes have been manufactured in China, Argentina, Kenya and Ethiopia and exported to impoverished places. But last week, Mycoskie announced that starting early next year, TOMS will begin manufacturing some of its shoes in Haiti. It says it will employ 100 locals and plans to build a “responsible, sustainable Haitian shoe industry.”  And that’s not all. By the end of 2015, Mycoskie pledged that his company will be producing a minimum of one-third of all its giving shoes in places where its shoes are given, broadening even further its commitment to local job creation across the globe.

This is a promising development.  I investigated TOMS in a Tiny Spark podcast and have criticized the company for many things, including the fact that the for-profit enterprise is not really doing anything to address the root causes of poverty by giving poor kids free shoes.  I was not the first to do so. Tom Murphy has critiqued TOMS in his excellent A View From The Cave blog. And blogger Saundra Schimmelpfennig has criticized the company for years and her story provides links to others writers who’ve gone after TOMS.

Mycoskie acknowledged that his decision to begin manufacturing in Haiti was a result of listening to his critics. “If you’re building a brand you have to listen to the critics, and we have,” he said in an interview with Entrepreneur Magazine last week.  “We are evolving through some major paradigm shifts.”

There’s still more TOMS can do if it wishes to become truly effective in its work with the extreme poor. And I would urge socially conscious consumers and TOMS fans to be rigorous in finding out about the impact their charitable dollars are having around the world. No doubt TOMS will continue to profit from – and be shaped by – this rapidly evolving sector known as socially responsible business.  As a leader in this space, TOMS has the privilege and the obligation to show others how private companies can have genuine and lasting impact in impoverished communities. Last week’s announcement was an excellent starting point.

I talked about the TOMS’s announcement on PRI’s The World. You can listen to it here:

(PHOTO CREDIT: TOMS SHOES)

6 Comments

  1. Dan Olson

    Does anyone know where I can find information regarding wages Haitian workers in the Tom’s factory will be paid? I’m having trouble finding anything. Thanks much.

  2. Thanks .
    It’s a business that isn’t going anywhere soon. Its also a business that has influenced so many young people (like myself) to create a business that values more than just it’s bottom line.

  3. I know Tom’s has made donations to a friend of mine’s jigger eradication campaign in coastal Kenya–Wanjimida Jigger Campaign. It is not a huge organization, but it has made strides through treatments, using local herbs and education. Tom’s provided them with shoes for children at some of the local schools and they have been appreciated. Perhaps, small focussed partnerships with locals enacting real change in their communities is the best waycorporate entities like Tom’s can succed in making a difference.

  4. Very interesting stuff. I was just having a coffee in the recently opened TOMS flagship store on the famed (and ever-so fashionable) Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice. Then I remembered hearing your story recently on PRI and decided to do a bit more research.

    This is a tough topic (to say the least) which I never really gave much thought to until discovering your work on the matter. I have a pair of TOMS that I’ve owned for about two years, and wear all the time (I’m wearing them right now). They are practical, comfortable, minimal and somehow: fashionable. I’m wearing them right now.

    I’m not the consumer who purchased the shoes for philanthropic reasons. However, there’s no doubt that TOMS grew to the size it has (and thus influenced my buying decision due to it’s prevalence amongst my friends) because of the One for One mission statement. It allowed them to stand out by “doing good.” Which was revolutionary. Still continues to be…

    If you’ve never had the chance to visit the TOMS flagship store, lemme tell ya! It might just be the most appropriately fitting “Venice” business in this tiny pocket of Los Angeles. You can grab coffee from the pop-up style Cafecito Organico (local roaster) cafe built into a corner of the shop. And while you wait for your iced americano, why not try on a pair of sunglasses? Or shoes? Or a shirt? It’s brilliantly designed to accommodate the curious consumer (guilty).

    It’s a business that isn’t going anywhere soon. Its also a business that has influenced so many young people (like myself) to create a business that values more than just it’s bottom line. Whether or not it will go down as the most philanthropic “business-y business” is unclear; but in this consumer’s opinion, it’s a worthy start.

    So yeah – many of those on the “receiving end” of TOMS philanthropic mission might not need shoes at all. They probably need clean access to drinking water and education. Or not! I don’t know. I’ve never been to the developing world. Which might very well be the problem with all of us that help companies like TOMS succeed: we have absolutely no idea.

    But they are still sexy. And if just a handful of those in the third world received a pair of shoes they REALLY needed (it’s possible, no?) then I support TOMS in their learning process.

    Thanks for bringing my attention to the larger picture of “do good” businesses. I’m stoked for more to come.

  5. James Crawford

    It is encouraging that TOMS is listening to their people but they kind of have to since we are their customers. Even with this change of direction, TOMS understanding of poverty is still very elementary. With that said, TOMS represents the market opportunity in using business to address social problems. Hopefully with the success of TOMS other social entrepreneurs will enter this field and come up with a truly viable solution both socially and financially.

    • Amy

      Absolutely, James. These kinds of discussions and critiques are done in the hopes of figuring out how we can move ahead as responsibly and as effectively as possible. And you’re right – all social entrepreneurs can learn from the TOMS model by watching the strategic changes the company makes in the years ahead.

      In fact, all of us benefit when there is transparency, honesty and a free flow of information regarding lessons learned in the field. And those who benefit most from this kind of dialogue, of course, are the people we are trying to “help”.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

      Amy

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