There’s a fairly new Op-Ed on the website of The Business of Fashion. It casts doubt on the TOMS Shoes “one-for-one” business model of giving away a product to a needy third world child every time a customer buys one.
It’s not a bad op-ed, but the op-ed itself, and all of the comments miss one important feature of giving away shoes.
They all assume the absolute necessity of shoes.
One of the posters for the “One Day Without Shoes” highlights the attitude exactly:
It assumes that the hardship there is not the fact that the kids’ schools are too far away, or that clean water is too hard to get, or that medical assistance is too far away, but that, horrors, they must walk barefoot to get there. And that is simply wrong.
The Op-Ed does something quite similar. It is The Problem with One-for-One Models. The Op-Ed’s beef with TOMS Shoes is that they really do little to address poverty. What it really does is use the poverty to get rich people to buy stuff by playing on their guilt.
Here’s what he says:
But my feelings about Toms changed after I first mentioned the company to friends from Argentina. I thought that they, of all people, would love the company. But they despise Toms. They feel humiliated and violated by the company, which, they suggest, is merely using their country. In fact, one of my Argentinian friends said he would scream if he saw another picture of a white guy surrounded by appreciative brown kids.
TOMS was founded by Blake Mycoskie, who, on the TOMS website, says
TOMS humble beginnings happened unintentionally. While traveling in Argentina in 2006, Blake witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. His solution to the problem was simple, yet revolutionary: to create a for-profit business that was sustainable and not reliant on donations. Blake’s vision soon turned into the simple business idea that provided the powerful foundation for TOMS.
Again, there’s the assumption that going barefoot is a real burden for the poor.
And again, back to the Op-Ed:
Not having proper shoes has serious consequences for the children who face this problem every day.
Really? I’d like to see some justification for this statement.
As I’ve said before, the only real justification might be hookworm. But hookworm is spread in unsanitary conditions. Those very same unsanitary conditions also lead to bad drinking water, so the proper solution is better sanitation (outhouses, centralized water treatment and supply), not a prophylactic shoe.
The comments to the Op-Ed are no better. For example,
TOMS Shoes, never intended to solve the deep roots of poverty in Argentina ( or in any country ) which depends upon lots of different factors , some of which we do not even know precisely. But it did give shoes to many children, to enable them to go to school, play ball games ..etc….
Kids can go to school just fine barefoot (unless school administrators have bought into the idea that the only way to be “civilized” is to force the wearing of shoes). And kids can play ball barefoot quite well (and the lack of shoes means they won’t be deforming their feet leading to foot problems as they get older).
Here’s another one:
The goal here is to get shoes on to children’s feet, not study the psychology of the consumer.
Yes, but how important is it to get shoes onto children’s feet, unless you assume there is something wrong with going barefoot?
These people have bought into the stigma because they no longer remember, or never experienced, the joy of a barefoot childhood.
(And now we finally get to the point of this blog entry.)
I’ve documented article after article in newspapers about the joys of going barefoot as a child in the United States. But this is history. These sorts of articles starting appearing in the late 1800s or early 1900s as urbanization meant that the standard (not the necessity) switched to having kids shod. But in rural areas and small towns, kids would go barefoot all summer long up until at least the 1950s.
When I go hiking barefoot, I still sometimes get a comment from an old-timer who reminisces with me about how he (or she) would go barefoot all summer long and that they could run on gravel (but they could never do it now—well, that’s because they’re out of practice).
These old newspaper articles and commentaries talk about how kids could not wait until the earliest day of spring when their mothers would let them go out barefoot. And they’d try to stay barefoot as long into the fall as they could.
That does not sound like a burden of poverty to me at all.
We have Jimmy Carter reminiscing about going barefoot:
From as early in May until as late in October as weather and my parents permitted, I never wore shoes. The first warm days brought not only a season of freshness and rebirth, but also a time of renewed freedom for me, when running, sliding, walking through puddles, and sinking up to my ankles in the ploughed fields gave life a new dimension.
There were cartoons that highlighted the kind of begging kids did to go barefoot.
Heck, in Michigan, a barefoot boy in early spring was as much of a harbinger as a robin. Dateline: March 30, 1930.
The first barefoot boy of the season was seen on the streetcar Wednesday.
None of them talk about how awful it is to be barefooted as a kid. All of them remember going barefooted with fondness.
It is only today, when kids are shod continuously, that we somehow thing that that is the natural conditions of things. But is it not. Feet adapt quite marvelously, and the Op-Ed and the commenters are totally ignorant of that.
If given a chance (and not scared to death by overprotective parents and society), kids love going barefoot. And they survive it quite well.
Heck, they more than survive it, they end up with feet that are not shoe-shaped and which give them trouble like bunions or plantar fasciitis in their later years.
That’s what’s missing from the Op-Ed. The heck with the “business model”. The shoe-for-a-shoe business model is like trying to sell refrigerators in the Arctic. You can do it if you are a good enough salesman.
But is it really necessary?