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news about TOMS shoes

Just about every twenty-something knows the name. You can spot TOMS shoes on college campuses across the country, often sported by young, socially minded students.

The founding idea, a buy-one-give-one promise, captures the hearts of that young idealistic demographic quite well, satisfying its two greatest cravings simultaneously– one, the desire to feel a part of change (preferably without trying very hard), and two, the desire to, well… look cool. So successful has the company been that it recently sold its two millionth pair, making it at least a 100 million dollar enterprise.

I’ll admit it. I too once donned a pair of grey TOMS cordones every morning, and felt rather smug as I slipped my toes into the little cloth shoe, imaging my improvised counterpart in some distant, developing nation doing the same.

However it has become clear as of late that while the company can certainly craft a stylish shoe, their proficiency in the aid realm is a bit lacking. Actually, to speak frankly, it’s downright detrimental.

The argument against TOMS is threefold.

First, the TOMS model is incredibly inefficient. On the website, TOMS justifies its battle against shoelessness largely from a public health perspective, with their thin cloth shoe sufficing as a barrier between the feet of young children and the many parasites and infections they might incur from the ground below. Perhaps the greatest threat they tolerate by walking barefoot is hookworm, a tiny yet ferocious parasite that is transmitted by walking through the fecal matter of an infected human being.

While TOMS shoes can certainly be considered a solution to this endemic, there are a number of more effective alternatives. A former Peace Corps volunteer and blogger illustrates this point quite well through a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine there is a school of 1,000 students in rural developing anywhere. Hookworm and infections are common among the population, as the students must walk through an area some in the community have begun to use as a latrine. Assuming each pair of shoes is about a $27 value (half the cost of the average buy-one-give-one TOMS shoe), you can give each child a pair for $27,000, a fix that would likely prevent any continued hookworm incidence for the next two years until the shoes inevitably wear out (that’s a generous time frame).

Alternatively, if this money was instead donated to a local public health organization, cement latrine facilities could be built near by for an estimated cost of $2,000. In essence with the same funds ($27,000) one could temporary postpone hookworm incidence for two years in one community, or eradicate them for decades in 13.

Second, the buy-one-give-one model is an archetype for that classic aid mistake of giving fish, rather than training fisherman. While TOMS gives shoes in over 50 countries, their products are made only in Argentina, Ethiopia and China. That means in most the communities they give, their “shoe drops” constitute an economic bomb to any local industry that may have existed prior to the introduction of free international shoes.

That is no scare tactic. This pattern of aid crushing local industry is well documented. One startling example is a 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.

Poverty in Africa is a consequence of a general economic stagnation. Giving of any kind targets the symptom, not the disease. A more effective alternative would be to support local business by selling locally made shoes internationally, rather than bringing free ones into the community. Check out Nisolo Shoes, a company that is doing just that – selling the hand made leather shoes of Peruvian craftsmen and women to the American public.

A third and final complaint, is more of a moral objection, rather a theoretical aid practicum problem. TOMS and its founder Blake Mycoskie, have been accused recently of favoring evangelical groups as giving partners, and even distributing shoes more frequently to Christian children. While the TOMS website says specifically that no preference is given to any particular religion, a number of TOMS giving partners have been found only giving shoes before and after services at local churches.

For example, the missionaries working for one giving partner, Bridge to Rwanda, distributed some 6,000 shoes to a number of students at schools in that nation. They gave to 50 schools within one Anglican diocese, only delivering TOMS to one school outside that Christian network.

So for you committed TOMS supporters, is there any hope remaining for the organization? Any redemption? Maybe a little.

For one, while TOMS is certainly not an effective public health policy as far as bang for your buck, it is likely receiving money from people who might otherwise never donate to charities with more efficient means of combating hookworm and similar illnesses. In a sense, their creativity in marketing and ability to expand the donor base gives them some redemption.

Second, its new sunglasses program steers a bit away from the buy-one-give-one model, and instead promises only that the money from your purchase will go to help administer proper eye care and medical examinations in the developing world. The program seems a bit too new to make any substantive evaluations, but at least on face value it appears to be, if nothing else, a harmless venture.

However, while I am naturally an optimist, I have to admit I can’t see TOMS being anything but bad for the developing world, and how the West perceives it. The organization has White Man’s Burden written all over it.

Toms Shoes: A Venice shoe-in

Toms Shoes has opened its first retail store and community space, in Venice, barely an alpargata’s toss from the apartment living room where Blake Mycoskie started building his buy-one-give-one, commerce-meets-cause shoe empire six years ago.

Inhabiting a Craftsman-style cottage on Abbot Kinney, the 2,200-square-foot indoor-outdoor space feels like a college coffee house in all the right ways.

Created in collaboration with L.A.’s Commune Design, it boasts rough-hewn wooden walls and floors inside. Outside, there’s a back porch enclosed by a hodgepodge of corrugated roofing, canvas tenting and repurposed wood-frame windows. There’s a counter selling coffee by Caffecito, juice drinks from Pressed Juicery and kabocha squash loaf and other nibbles from Valerie Confections, all three L.A.-based purveyors. The backyard with artificial turf, benches and a free-standing fire pit is available for use by nonprofit groups. And a book exchange, free Wi-Fi and board games encourage hanging out. Of course, the full range of Toms products is available, including men’s, women’s and children’s shoes and boots, sunglasses, T-shirts and sweat shirts, and leather-bound Toms journals, modeled after Mycoskie’s own travel logs.

“We wanted to give something back to the community,” Mycoskie said. “As Toms has grown, I’ve been thinking about our mission. It’s about giving and one-for-one, which is why we sell shoes to give to children in need and sell eyewear to give cataract surgery to give sight. But more than that, I believe business can be used to improve people’s lives. And the only reason it makes sense to get into retail is to create community spaces to improve people’s lives.

“Starbucks took the college coffee shop and provided it to the masses,” said Mycoskie, 36, who gives speeches around the world and hobnobs with the likes of former President Clinton and retired Anglican Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu.

“They provided a third place that was not home or the office. My concern with what has happened, and this is no knock on Starbucks, is that they have become workplaces and don’t have as much of a community feel anymore. I’m trying to create a third place in Venice for people to have community engagement.”

Mycoskie points to a newsstand holding copies of GQ, Green Parent and other publications.

“I wanted to have those,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll sell any, but there isn’t even any place on this whole street to buy a newspaper or magazine.”

The vibe is boho clubhouse. Everywhere you look, there are mementos from Mycoskie’s travels — an Ethiopian broom sits in one corner, a hand-carved Guatemalan bird perches on a nearby shelf, a string of Tibetan prayer flags flutters across the eaves, and children’s drawings are tacked everywhere. A large map on the wall charts the company’s progress, with pins in the 54 countries where Toms has organized “shoe drops” to donate footwear. The youthful and lighthearted company culture is reflected in the bulletin board ephemera, which includes photos of employees at the annual Movember party, inside jokes (including a Lionel Richie “Have you seen me?” poster) and fabric swatches from the design team.

No doubt, Mycoskie would like to have a Toms store on every cool street in America. If this first one works, he hopes to open more of these kinds of community spaces and fund them through the sale of Toms products, coffee and snacks.

Stand-alone retail is just the latest development for the company, which has seen tremendous growth since it was founded in 2006. Last spring, Toms launched eyewear, signaling that it would no longer be just a shoe company but a multiproduct company based on the one-for-one giving model. Mycoskie expects to launch a new product category in the next 12 to 24 months. He’s also working on pilot projects featuring manufacturing in Africa, to be announced in the spring. “We’ve heard loud and clear from our customers that they want more in-country production and more in-country job creation,” he said. “If we’re giving in these countries, we also need to be creating jobs and supporting entrepreneurs.”

The other big news in Mycoskie’s life? He and girlfriend Heather Lang tied the knot three months ago at the Sundance Resort in Utah, then embarked on a honeymoon that included visits to Thailand, Bali and India. “They were all places that neither of us had ever been,” he said. “It was fun to do some traveling that was not for work.”