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)