The guest yesterday on The Huffington Post’s C-Suite was Blake Mycoskie, the CEO of TOMS shoes.
He actually seemed like a very nice guy—very caring and socially responsible. But . . .
I’ve given (in my limited fashion) TOMS shoes grief before. Here’s a few of my past blog posts, if you’re in the mood to click through:
- TOMS Shoes—Bad Assumptions.
- One Day Without Shoes
- More Thoughts — One Day Without Shoes.
- Shoo! Donations
- A Day Without Dignity.
The TOMS Shoes business model is, for every TOMS shoe you buy, they donate one to children overseas who need shoes. But what they don’t really seem to realize is that children really don’t need shoes all that much. When they do need shoes, it’s usually because the infrastructure is so lacking that, for instance, there is not proper sanitation so that hookworm can spread. The solution there is better sanitation, which has widespread effects on health way beyond hookworm. The shoe “solution” is simply not cost-effective for all the troubles. [Note: I've recommended Peepoo Bags before.] And we hear these sob stories of the kids having to walk 5 miles to go to school . . . barefoot.
If your feet are used to it, walking 5 miles is trivial (at least for the feet)—it is only a soft Western foot that would think that’s a problem.
Anyways, Blake was being interviewed because the TOMS Shoes website now has a new section where they sell items from other “socially responsible” merchants.
But first let’s take a look at some of what he says.
In describing the beginning of TOMS Shoes, he says
I was in Argentina and I met some kids who needed shoes to go to school.
This just drives me nuts. Why should kids need shoes to go to school? It seems that in some of these countries they make it part of the dress code. (I saw that when I was in Costa Rica.) There is just something about an authoritarian mindset. Shouldn’t it be more important that the kids get schooling than what they have on their feet? Geez. It might also be First World Mind Poisoning—since they see developed countries doing something they feel they have to do it themselves.
I would really like to point out that when there was that sort of poverty over here in the U. S. kids were not kept from school simply because of bare feet. You can see that in this blog entry I wrote regarding a 1940s Alabama school.
These shoe donators have no historical perspective and get so wrapped up in their model that they have trouble seeing the real problems.
According to Blake, so far they’ve donated 10,000,000 shoes and 200,000 sight-saving surgeries and glasses and treatment. That second one I can get fully behind. The model there is that for each of their sunglasses they sell, they provide vision care. Now that is useful.
Continuing with the interview, they talked about whether this one-for-one model was efficient enough. Here’s the reply.
It’s absolutely a way. You know, it’s interesting, when we first started getting some criticism (I guess it was two years ago) that TOMS’ aid model was not enough; that it’s important to provide aid for the basic necessities: you know, shoes, water, food, sight, education. But if you really are serious about poverty alleviation, our critics said, then you need to create jobs.
And, at first I took that personally, and I was like, “We’re doing so much already.” But then I recognized that they were right. Like, if we really want to have a big impact on poverty alleviation, using our model to create jobs is the next level.
So I made a commitment that by the end of 2015, one-third of all of our giving shoes would actually be made in the countries that we give them in.
And we’re now making shoes currently in Kenya; we’re getting ready to open up in Ethiopia, and then in mid-January we’ll launch our factory in Haiti, and we’ll be the only footwear manufacturer in Haiti at that time.
* * *
There really is a lot you can learn from the critics, and you’re always going to have them, and you can either debate them or fight them, or you can embrace them. And that’s what we’ve tried to do, especially on this job-creation front.
I’ve highlighted what annoyed me. Shoes are a necessity? No, sanitation is a necessity. Shoes are a prophylactic.
But if you have people wear shoes and weaken their feet to let them get all soft, then shoes can become a necessity. And then they need more shoes. Hook’em when they’re young. (Let me also point out that, even if you do want some footwear for rough terrain, an enclosed TOMS shoe is probably the worst thing for a hot, humid environment. That’ll just lead to fungal infections—is TOMS shoes also providing athlete’s foot treatment with each pair bought? Seriously, if they really, really want to provide footwear, donating 10 flip-flops for each TOMS shoe bought would make more sense; flip-flops at least allow the feet to breathe.)
Now, on to the TOMS Marketplace. Supposedly, the criteria for a company to be included (aside from their socially responsible donating) is that their product and their donation should be linked (along the lines of the shoe-for-a-shoe, though not as strict).
[We] wanted giving to be connected to the core of what they did.
Even that seems iffy to me.
Here, for $34, is a “Gold Fighting Hunger Necklace” that is placed under the cause of “Water”.
If you can see a relation, “connected to the core of what they did”, between jewelry and water, you’re a better person than I am.
In the end, Blake seems like a really nice guy. His heart is in the right place. But it just seems to me that resources are being poorly targeted—they’re based on myths and wishful thinking (to some extent, not fully). It’s the marketing that sells the products, but the marketing is aimed at the consumer, not the needy people they are supposedly helping.
It would be nice if Blake were open to that sort of criticism, instead.