Asking the wrong questions about TOMS Shoes

Blake-Mycoskie-TOMS-Shoes-Focus on the family

I’m quoted in a LA Weekly story on TOMS shoes.

Since I’ve started to think about and research TOMS my stance has been best summed up as such: the problem isn’t shoelessness; it’s poverty.

At the best TOMS is addressing a symptom of poverty, not poverty itself. At the worst, TOMS is exploiting those living in poverty to sell shoes and hindering the local shoe business of their giving locations by giving away free shoes.

The author of the piece, Patrick McDonald, even gave me the last word on TOMS in the piece:

“You see the impact of how a job can change lives,” says Timmerman, “of how it can give a person dignity.”

He adds, “TOMS is a feel-good story, but you pull back the veil a little bit and you just go, ‘Oh, man, I really wish that’s not the case.’ ”

But it’s not the last word that makes me uneasy about this piece. It’s the first words. The piece is titled: “Is Blake Mycoskie an Evangelical?” (I knew that the business model of TOMS was being called into question when I granted the interview, but I didn’t know the hook was going to focus on the religious beliefs of TOMS’ founder.)

So what if he is?

From the LA Weekly story:

Christianity Today reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey points out that, in the past, Mycoskie’s evangelical activity “hasn’t been a problem for him. But now, it is.”

She revealed July 10 that Mycoskie attends Mosaic, an L.A. evangelical Christian church that’s considered more multicultural than mainstream evangelical institutions.

Mycoskie also spoke at an official TOMS event at Abilene Christian University, an evangelical college that refused to allow formation of a gay-straight alliance; and at an evangelical Christian conference hosted by influential pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch that has promoted the idea that gays and lesbians should be celibate or seek therapy.

The whole “Blake is an evangelical Christian and evangelical Christians hate the gays” leap is a big one. Yes, there are churches and groups that are actively involved in the anti-gay rights movement, but it takes a pretty broad brush to say they ALL are — every single one of them — for praying away the gay. This whole issue blew up after Mycoskie spoke to Focus on the Family a group known for it’s strong anti-gay stance.

In response to the uproar Blake writes on his blog:

These past few weeks have been some of the most difficult of my life. When I accept an invitation for a public speaking engagement, my purpose is to share the TOMS story and our giving mission. In no way do I believe that this means I endorse every single aspect of the organization I am speaking to. That may be naïve, and you may disagree, but it is my sincere belief.

As someone who speaks all over the country to all kinds of groups, I agree with Blake. I’ve talked with groups whose worldviews are different than my own. In fact, I think it’s important to do this. Whether on stage or in life we shouldn’t isolate our interactions to those who only see the world exactly as we do. Otherwise – if we believe their views need changed – how will we change them?

I believe that gay rights is a human rights issue and not a faith one. But it doesn’t matter what I believe about gay rights because groups don’t bring me in to talk about it. To me it doesn’t matter what the groups politics or faith is, I have my message and I’m honored to deliver it. I suspect Blake is the same.

But the question about Blake shouldn’t be, “Is he an evangelical? It should be, “Can producing shoes in China for $2.50, selling those shoes to American consumers for $60 using the faces and feet of the world’s poor as a marketing agent, and giving an even cheaper pair of shoes away in Ethiopia, all while being a private company operating with the opacity with which that provides, an ethical way to do business or just a way to make lots of money? To me TOMS 1-for-1 model looks more like 1 for TOMS and .1 for those living in poverty.

Nike has more social accountability than TOMS. And all of this “Blake believes in Jesus so he must hate gay people” business is just distracting from what really matters…

People that have jobs can always buy shoes.

I’d like to see TOMS manufacture all of their shoes in factories that provide good jobs that put the workers’ kids through school and improve lives. If they did this, I would go from being the go-to-guy for quotes criticizing TOMS to one of the company’s biggest supporters.

That would be a business I would support, and, I don’t care what you believe, I’d tell you about it.

<i>Does this guy look like he'd be against gay rights?</i><b></b>

Does this guy look like he'd be against gay rights?

kris says:

Well said, Kelsey. I share your thoughts on TOMS shoes and the focus on Blake’s faith is poor journalism. My opinion because it’s inconsequential in the big picture. Crazy.

lindsay says:

“I’d like to see TOMS manufacture all of their shoes in factories that provide good jobs that put the workers’ kids through school and improve lives. If they did this, I would go from being the go-to-guy for quotes criticizing TOMS to one of the company’s biggest supporters.”

I’d add in one more line– those factories should be in the countries where the shoes are distributed. Otherwise the GIK aspect is going to put local shoe sellers out of business. Ideally the shoes should be better quality to withstand heavy use– check out the recycled tire shoes that many Maasai wear.

I don’t know that it’s poor journalism, if the story was about his faith. But it is irrelevent in a story about marketing. So Kelsey’s input is out of place. Or the religious slant is out of place. Either way it was two unrelated topics in the same story.
You’re 100% right on the money, dear friend, about the way Christianity is used to sell products under the guise of compassion. And that’s the problem I have with the cult of Christian commerce. Slap a Jesus fish on something and ta da! It’s a ministry. As Bandit would say, Boo on that.

Joanne says:

PS: I’ll apologize in advance for the comments or emails you’ll get from Christians who’ll “hate” on you because you dissed their hipster faith charity of choice. 😉

Kristi says:

Well said, Kelsey.

Good point Lindsay!

Joanne, I agree that the piece seemed like two different stories. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been attacked for stating my mind.

Kristi, Thanks for dropping by. Good to see you here.

Jason says:

“Gay rights is a human rights issue, not a faith one”. I like they way you put this statement.

Robert says:

I agree and disagree with you… I think there are 2 issues… the first is “Is TOMS shoes using the poor as a marketing gimmick?” and the second one is… “Is the founder of TOMs Shoes homophobic or does he attend a homophobic church and speak to homophobic communities?” You are right… these are different questions. But TOMS is selling more than just shoes… they are selling the idea of social responsibility and progressiveness. And the people buying the image have a right to know if the image is real. I suspect the TOMS is using the poor to make millions. I have no proof. I do know that the Church he attends is homophobic… its minister (mcmanus) has a pod cast were he equates gay relationships to being “as natural as pigs eating their young”. Until recently, Mosaic had a link to the Southern Baptist Convention. Does this make the founder of TOMS “homophobic”…. Yes. Will I buy shoes from TOMS. No. And just to let you know… the minister of his church has an expensive line of canvas bags… tops off at $700 or so… interesting bunch.

Let your voice be heard!