The Falcon   |   Volume 83, Issue 53

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Are TOMS shoes best fit for philanthropy?

Better ways to give efficiently


Published: October 14 2009

You see them everywhere: stomping impatiently in the long lines of Gwinn Commons, running to Otto Miller Hall for an 8 a.m. class or trudging up the hill to Ashton Hall. TOMS Shoes are clearly popular among SPU students, but the poverty-conscious shoes are more an altruistic status symbol than a donation, which comes at a hefty price.

TOMS Shoes was founded by Blake Mycoskie under the charitable work principle of "One for One," which has been commended by magazines such as People, Rolling Stone and Elle. The company donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair sold. "Using the purchasing power of individuals to benefit the greater good is what we're all about," states the TOMS Web site (

But charity should be as efficient as possible. Instead of giving Mycoskie a profit and calling it charity, it's more effective to buy less expensive shoes and donate the left-over money directly to global relief organizations.

Suppose you opt to buy a pair of shoes that cost $20 rather than a pair of TOMS, which are, at the most modest price, a total of $44. Buying the cheaper pair of shoes leaves an extra $24 to go toward donations. You may be wondering what sort of impact a mere $24 could make. According to the ONE Campaign, a donation of that amount can provide two nets to protect against malaria at $10 each, treat a person living with HIV/AIDS for two months, prevent maternal death by providing vitamin supplements at $1.25 per pill or fund six months of education for a child in Africa.

The TOMS we see around campus have provided relief for many, but the money spent on those shoes could have provided even more through a direct donation to a nonprofit organization.

A January 2009 Business Week article stated that, TOMS Shoes accumulated $4.6 million in revenue from its first 115,000 pairs of shoes, and the TOMS Web site projects sales surpassing 300,000 by the end of 2009. While the company does donate portions of its profit to a global cause, it describes itself as a "for-profit company with giving at its core."

Though purchasing TOMS makes a positive impact, it doesn't equate to making a direct donation. Buying the shoes purely for philanthropy is a waste of money because the amount you spend doesn't go straight to relieving global poverty. A pair of TOMS cost anywhere from $44 to $98, and while exact manufacturing figures are unavailable, Sustainable Business Design praises the shoe's low manufacturing cost and retail prices, which allow for both donation purposes and company profit.

Buying TOMS isn't a bad thing; purchasing a pair of these shoes does more good than buying a pair of Converse. But all too often, a pair of TOMS shoes are merely a symbol to the public that their owner is a charitable person.

"If people see TOMS on your feet, they initially think you're a do-gooder," said sophomore Natalie Evans. The social message that transmits by wearing TOMS can become alluring to a potential customer, but it is important to discern the difference between giving to charity and buying TOMS.

The concept behind TOMS is a commendable social and marketing tool. As a for-profit business, it's not necessary for TOMS Shoes to donate to charity, and such innovation and giving on behalf of a company is admirable. Nevertheless, TOMS built its empire using social justice to attract its customers. Consumers must be aware of this before making their purchase.

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Katy said:
Fantastic article. Makes a great point with just a few basic facts. I'll be passing it on. =)
Mckenzie said:
Another thought on TOMS: by giving shoes to children who would otherwise be barefoot, we can inadvertently create a physical and economic dependency. This makes the (likely) future unavailability of shoes a much greater threat than the pre-shoe implications for a child. Thank you for mentioning the multitude of better uses for our giving money!
JamesC said:
I do no entirely agree. If TOMS is able to become a successful, profit making firm, than that could send a message to other corporations that charitable giving is more than just a way to increase good public relations. Currently, the predominating belief is that profit is the ultimate end of a corporation, and that a business manager's ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders. However, as we have seen, this can create an atmosphere that encourages greed and a lack of integrity with business practices. If TOMS is able to successfully generate profit using a business model that uses profit as a means to serve the community, than I believe that will create a greater change for good than the extra $20 you could be giving. Historically, college students are great at buying clothing, but sub par at consistently giving charitably to worthy causes. No one would deny that children in Africa need shoes, and a company such as TOMS who is able to both earn profit and then use that to benefit those in need is making a great difference in the world. I respect your logic that the total gift size could be greater if the money was saved on cheaper shoes, however, it is more likely that the money will be used over several weeks on midnight Taco Bell runs. When the money is spent on TOMS, children in need receive shoes and corporate America gains a valuable example of the proper use of profit.
JamesC said:
I do not entirely agree. If T
Stargirl said:
I think James and Megan both have valid points. Giving some is better than not giving at all, but the point is that buying TOMS shoes isn't doing as much good as we think. Though, since we're going to buy shoes, we might as well buy TOMS.
Lauren Bihr said:
This article reminds me of a line in an unfinished song I wrote long ago: "Father forgive us For using your gifts for gain." Y'all should just join Mocha Club (or another reputable charity) and donate $7 a month (just a bit less than the cost of 2 mochas) to projects in Africa (or elsewhere). Then you'll actually be Giving. Why is it that we who have so much find it so difficult to bring ourselves to give without expectation for anything in return. Let the sense that you are expending without personal benefit be enough! Or can you? Is it too painful for you to give without receiving? I, for one, can answer 'yes'. It's very first. Even Mocha Club snags members with the "sign up and get a free T-shirt that says something cute about Africa" draw. I confess, that's initially how they got me. Pretty lame of me. Then I read about the projects, upped my donation, and gave that shirt away. I suppose we have a conditioned sense of entitlement that must be un-done. Just as faith is counter-intuitive to our need to reason, so is giving to our need to preserve self. So let us believe, and let us expectations attached. But seriously, go give.
cloogen said:
While the money could be better spent on other campaigns, the TOMS shoes model encourages people to donate when they otherwise would not. The $25 dollars could be used more efficiently, but who is to say that person would donate the $25 that they do not spend on shoes. The model has sparked a whole new trend of donating, and will be very successful with new generations.
JFriesen said:
I like joking when I see a pair of gold or sparkle or sequin TOMS that some kid in Africa just got beat up so someone could steal them.
mbefus said:
The key problem with all of this ranting is underscored by Lauren Bihr's words, "Ya'll should." If "ya'll should" actually worked to get people putting their money toward alleviating poverty, poverty would be history. But it doesn't and it never will. Instead of knocking on 'the system' that is free market economy, this bright young entrepreneur is transforming the system from within. Community service, social work and charity are wonderful, but they won't solve the world's needs. Without industry most of the charity you're celebrating wouldn't be possible. Finding creative ways for people to make their livelihood in ways that better the world -- now that's a plan that might actually change the world.
Theresa said:
Good point and facts. But I still think Tom's Shoes business model is a great idea for profit and philanthropy because it: 1. is honest and straight-forward about its purpose (profit and giving) 2. is sustainable (not dependent on donation) 3. is mutually beneficial (profit for business owners, jobs for employees, good feeling for customers--for the nice shoes and good deed, shoes for the needy) 4. gives opportunity for individuals to be charitable intentionally or not 5. increases social awareness
Tami said:
So, my question is how many people would actually go through with (and remember to) donate that "extra" money towards something else? Why not do both - buy Toms AND put money towards another cause (or more)... even if it's just a few dollars here and there... it all adds up. I would love to hear more about how to make the Toms model a sustainable one... I wonder about the kids when their one pair wears out... thoughts? You could send the ideas to Toms, I'm sure. Has anyone talked directly to the company? That would be fun... bring Blake to campus as a speaker... I'm sure Bob Zurinsky could get him. :)
madgey said:
The main point, I think, for this article is the line "it is important to discern the difference between giving to charity and buying TOMS.". Yes, TOMS donates shoes, but find me a company that doesn't give to charity in some form or another. This is like saying Nike doesn't give any proceeds to charity. Personally, I find the shoes to be very low quality and pretty rough to look at (a friend of mine went through three pairs in a year). I understand this low quality probably keeps costs low so you essentially ARE paying for two pairs at once. So TOMS isn't really "giving" anyone anything. It's bought, paid for, AND they made money in the process. TOMS uses a pretty common practice of any money making company (charity, scholarships, etc.) as a business model. I'd be hard pressed to find a company that doesn't do what TOMS does without passing the actual "giving" on to the consumer. If people were paying what the shoes were actually worth, TOMS wouldn't be in a position to donate to anybody. TOMS forces you to be charitable by charging $45 for a shoe that might sell for $10 retail.
Jen G said:
Buy more things to save the world! Toms! Gap (red)! Kony 2012! Consumerism fixes everything!

The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent the views of The Falcon or Seattle Pacific University.


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