3 Things Criticizing TOMS Shoes Has Taught Me

toms shoes, pic 2

Are you wearing shoes today? In high schools and around colleges across the country students are going barefoot to celebrate TOMS Shoes One Day Without Shoes Event. Some call this event A Day Without Dignity.

Last April I weighed in with a view somewhere between the Kool-Aid drinkers and the stone throwers with my post The Problem with TOMS Shoes and Its Critics. The post has led to one of the best discussions ever on my blog.

Unfortunately half of those comments are summed up as such, “Oh yeah! Well, you’re a stupid pants jealous of Blake Mycoskie. What have you ever done?” I suppose a stupid pants is the opposite of a smarty pants. I just made up the term. No one actually called me that. At least I don’t thin they did. It’s hard to keep track; I was called so many things, which brings us to the first thing I’ve learned…

1) I don’t want to be Blake Mycoskie.

I like being Kelsey Timmerman just fine, thank you very much. That said, Blake is a nice guy who, as I mention in the post, I’ve been lucky enough to meet. It’s just that Blake isn’t married to Annie Timmerman (who can do ninja flips) and he doesn’t have Harper and Griffin as kids and Oreo the Cat as a cat. He doesn’t have a stay-at-home family. He doesn’t live in the Midwest. He doesn’t get to work as a banana worker in Costa Rica. He isn’t blessed to have people around the world tell him their stories and then get to share those stories. (Actually, I suppose he gets to do that last one a bit.) I don’t want to have a business with employees, sales reports, and meetings. Anyhow, I love being me.

2) We need to question good intents just as much as we do bad ones.

I believe that TOMS does some good. I believe that they could and should do more good. And that instead of just being a typical shoe company until the very end where they give away a pair (some question how good this actually is), they could also manufacture in a way that does good at the very start. I feel like I’m less of a critic of TOMS than I am a cheerleader.

Back in my basketball playing days, my dad was my biggest fan. If I scored 20 points and dished out 10 assists, he would still point out that one stupid turnover, or that one missed free throw on the front end of a one-in-one, or the way I reacted to that one call. No matter how good I did, Dad wanted me to do better. That’s how I feel about TOMS.

I want TOMS to do better.

They’ve earned so much goodwill and have so much potential to be a shoe company like no other, and they could use that goodwill to lead the way in manufacturing in a way that provides people with great jobs and hope.

The adventures meeting garment workers that I documented in my book WHERE AM I WEARING? and the new adventures with my new project WHERE AM I EATING? have helped me realize how important a good jobs is – a job that allows you to send your kids to school is everything.

3) We long for our things to have stories even if we fill in the blanks of those stories.

I want TOMS to do better, but more than that I want their fans to do better. I’ve met so many raving TOMS fans that have no idea where TOMS are made. All they know is that a pair was given away somewhere – probably Africa – because they bought a pair. And that’s enough for them to feel swell about their shoes.

Perhaps the beauty of the one-for-one model is its simplicity. We take the nugget of a story that can be printed on a shoebox and we make up our own story. Everyone who wears TOMS should look at where they are given and how they are given. I’m not saying they should look into this in order to find flaws or to criticize, but because if you are going to champion something, you should know something about it.

A lot of TOMS success can be contributed to that they sell shoes – and now glasses – with a story. It’s a short story, unless we dig through their site, but it is a story. So many of our things don’t have a story, or at least one we know about. In a landscape of story-less shoes, TOMS helps us connect with the world.

 
17 comments
Megy Karydes says:

The best piece from your post:

“I want TOMS to do better, but more than that I want their fans to do better. I’ve met so many raving TOMS fans that have no idea where TOMS are made. All they know is that a pair was given away somewhere – probably Africa – because they bought a pair. And that’s enough for them to feel swell about their shoes.”

This is so true. Even with my fair trade business, it’s hard NOT to get stuck concentrating on the artisans and how we’re providing much-needed employment to them, paying them a fair wage, yadda yadda yadda. It’s one thing for me to *sell* someone something. It’s another thing for *them* to be motivated to do something, too. THAT’S where the exciting, ripple effect of “good intentions” can really materialize.

Can you imagine how much MORE we could do if we bothered to get more involved? Dig a bit deeper than the marketing rhetoric (and I speak as a professional marketer)?

I agree with you regarding the role TOMS does, doesn’t and COULD play in the world. Just dropping off shoes to children in a developing country isn’t enough. There has to be more.

Thanks for sharing an update to your blog post. I wrote about this very topic (and referenced your blog) last month and it caused quite a debate among my friends: http://bit.ly/TOMSShoes1.

Keep up the great work, Kelsey.

~Megy

david2 says:

I believe that I do some good. I believe that I could and should do more good. And that instead of just being an author (some question how good this actually is http://www.amazon.com/Where-Wearing-Countries-Factories-Clothes/product-reviews/1118277554/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar), I could also be better in a way that is perfect at the very start. I feel like I’m less of a critic of myself than I am a cheerleader.

I want myself to do better.

I earned so much goodwill and have so much potential to be like no other, and I could use that goodwill to lead the way in everything in a way that provides people with great jobs and hope.

The fun adventures meeting garment workers that I documented in my book ANYHOW, I LOVE BEING ME! and the new adventures with my new project I AM A CHEERLEADER! have helped me realize.

I want Canon Cameras to do better, but more than that I want their fans to do better. I’ve met so many raving CANON fans that have no idea where CANON CAMERAS are made. All I know is that the minerals were dug up somewhere – probably Africa – because I bought a camera. And that’s enough for me to feel swell about their cameras.

Beauty, conflict minerals, nugget, story, shoebox. I make up my own poetry. Everyone who has a CANON CAMERA should look at ‘where they are made’ and ‘who made them’.

A lot of MY success can be contributed to that I promote promote promote – and now I AM A CHEERLEADER! – with a story. It’s a short story, unless we dig through my wardrobe, but it is a story. In a landscape of story-less stories, I help you connect with the world. I love being me.

ps ~ Megy as a Fan I want you to do better, please.

Kelsey says:

david2, CANON does not use the images of the world’s poor to sell cameras. I hold TOMS to a higher standard. For that matter, my experience is that TOMS holds themselves to a higher standard as well. PS: You can mock me all you want, but play nice with others in the comments or be banned from the conversation. Megy happens to be a fair trade rock star. Check out her site http://www.world-shoppe.com/. If we tried half as hard as her, the world would be a better place.

Megy Karydes says:

David, I never bashed TOMS for being a bad company. I know I can do better. And I try. My point is that we can’t just believe things that are spoon fed to us. And we shouldn’t just make choices/purchase things blindly. I realize I will not/cannot research every single thing that I buy and make an educated decision about whether it was created using child labor or not, for example, but I try to be an educated consumer.

That is what I’d love to see…more people asking the tough questions. Is what this company (and I’m not isolating TOMS in “this” reference) operating in a way that is aligned with my values? Would you knowingly purchase something knowing full well is was produced in unsafe working conditions that put people at risk?

What I appreciate from Kelsey’s book is that he’s willing to at least research where his clothes are made. Do you think even half the people in this country even bother to look at their country of origin tags?

I do want to do better. And I try.

~Megy

David2 says:

I feel like I’m less of a critic of Megy than I am a cheerleader.

Will says:

It seems like the title of your article might have been “TOMS could do better”. Saying that TOMS is problematic will certinaly create conflict between you and it’s champions.

If we agree that TOMS DOES good and can do better, than let’s give praise where it’s due and provide consrutive critisism.

If you don’t agree that TOMS does good, then let’s see the evidence that it does not.

The idea that giving to children in need undermines the local economy doesn’t hold water with me. I don’t see how giving shoes to a child in need equals a lost sale for the local shoe shop. Was that child, or it’s parents, going to make that purchase before they got TOMS? No…

Without the initial purchase there is NO donation. You can’t pontificate on what “better” use could the money be put to since there would be no money to put to use!

BOGO may not be the BEST, and it’s certainly not the ONLY, model that a company could run on but, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. TOMS does more than most companies in terms of social responsibility and I think it’s a good meassure of their success that they are now being critized for it.

Stu Nod says:

The white guilt on disay in the comments on your earlier Toms post is stunning.

[…] providing the poor with jobs would provide longer lasting effects than giving them shoes. In his 2012 update to this blog post, he also challenges the consumers of TOMS to learn more about the program they […]

[…] providing the poor with jobs would provide longer lasting effects than giving them shoes. In his 2012 update to this blog post, he also challenges the consumers of TOMS to learn more about the program they […]

Alan Sindler says:

Full disclosure: I am not in any way affiliated with Tom shoes. I came to this discussion because my pastor was criticizing them in a recent sermon, claiming that they’re just smart marketers who want people to feel good about buying shoes. His main criticism was that they don’t make shoes in the countries that they give them away in. It’s interesting, because at the very same church I go to, we had a Leadership Summit broadcast a few years back, and Tom was one of their guest speakers. After hearing him speak, and talk about how and why he started this company, I became an instant fan. I love the fact that he felt called to help put shoes on people who desperately needed them.

You said: “I believe that TOMS does some good. I believe that they could and should do more good. And that instead of just being a typical shoe company until the very end where they give away a pair (some question how good this actually is), they could also manufacture in a way that does good at the very start.”

It’s so easy to be an armchair critic, but let’s look at the facts. Most shoe companies do absolutely nothing for people other than sell them shoes. Tom decided to do something different, and he started a company whereby some of the profits would be redirected to help put shoes on people who so very much needed them.

Okay, he doesn’t have factories all those countries. Come on, isn’t the fact that he gives one pair of shoes away for every pair he sells something to be lauded, not criticized?

Could he possibly do more? Absolutely, as could just about every single person who’s being critical of him. Here’s what I found: Instead of being critical of what other people are not doing, maybe I should look within and see what I could be doing to make the world a better place.

He saw a need, and took the proceeds from the sale of his previous company to start Tom’s shoes, in order to fill that need. He should be encouraged, not criticized, because he’s done so much more than most of us armchair critics will probably ever do to make this world a better place.

As a business person I understand that the more profitable I can become, the more I can use those profits to accomplish my purpose. And Tom’s case, his purpose was to put shoes on people who didn’t have any, and to that extent I would say that giving way over 2 million pairs of shoes is so much more than most people ever do for the betterment of mankind, I would be embarrassed to be critical of what he’s accomplished.

Tom should not have to defend himself for doing what he’s doing, instead he should be encouraged to do more of it!

Kat says:

You are 100% correct. If a person does nothing to better the world then they have no right to criticize. Toms does good but they (along with everyone else) could do much much more. My partner and I are launching a company that will better the world in as many ways as we can think to do it. We will never make anywhere near what the higher ups at Toms do but that’s ok – that’s not what it’s about for us. Although it can be difficult at times, what I really try to do is concentrate on myself and doing what I can for the world, not spending my time focusing on what others should be doing, and I think that’s what we should all strive to do.

Jamison says:

After reading this and the previous post about TOMS, I was a bit disappointed. Yes, it’s great to get a discussion started and make people think, don’t get me wrong. But they’re doing something good for others. It may not be ideal, but they’re doing something. How are people supposed to go to school or get jobs if they don’t have shoes and are stopped from doing so because they don’t have their feet covered? Shoes can help get them started. And then there’s the whole subject of health and hygiene…. Every person can do better. Every company can do better. Organizations have their own focuses on specific ways they help those in need. If it is really that big of an issue, why not find ways to partner with the company to make a bigger impact by helping them to do more?

Jake says:

So maybe Im late to the game here, but TOMS does have factories in china, ethophia, and argentina as well has now expanded their model of business to glasses. And one of the things kelsey mentioned was that a lot of times kids require shoes to go to school, so giving them shoes in fact is helping kids get education and thus contributing to breaking the cycle of poverty. Plus having factories in argentina, ethophia and china, they are providing jobs for many families around the world, and as you put teaching them to fish.

And the reality of TOMS and other businesses that have a globalization model of capitalism is they all are playing a part in shifting the dynamics of the world for the better. It has been greatly unreported but the decrease in poverty globally has been staggering. There are many many reasons for this like the huge swing in the Chinese economy making such huge strides in the last couple of decades, but also other parts of the world that are starting to play a role in a global economy. As factories, call centers, distribution centers etc get located in more and more countries around the world we are creating a vast middle class of people on a global scale. And those people will have a chance to improve their lives and their children’s lives.

so I say sell more shoes TOMS that are made in china or argentina or ehtophia or anywhere else in the world. Just operating as a business you are doing a ton of good and the fact that you are giving away shoes and glasses to help those less fortunate then even better on you. congrats TOMS keep up the good work.

just my 2 cents

TM says:

So, I’m still confused by the discussions going on here (and on the original post). Has there been any confirmation about the working standards of laborers at any of TOM’s production facilities? Either negative or positive? Or is this just a general call towards greater transparency about those practices (which I am 100% for)?

I assume nobody thinks having shoes produced in China is inherently bad. Are just working off the shared assumption that there are very few positive examples of fair labor in that area of world?

I’m inclined towards that assumption from continuous examples seen–but just unclear where these conversations got started as I have never read anything specific about TOM’s practices or facilities beyond their hopes for fair pay and hours for every worker. Excited to learn more! Thanks for asking hard questions and exploring these issue.

al says:

I’m argentinian and i have lived both in Buenos Aires and in a southern town. I have never notice anybody wearing a pair of TOMS shoes, actually i found out about this brand a few days ago.
This doesn’t mean that they lie, it could be that they dont give them where i lived or like that shape of shoes is very common (and similar) i never read the brand. However, i still dont trust this companie compleatly

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