Social Justice: Toms Shoes – Not the Story You Might Expect

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Last week I wrote about the remarkable mission and rise of Warby Parker, and the post received a tremendous response.

People who didn’t know about WP were fascinated to learn that a) their product was affordable and stylish, and b) that the company has given away 500,000 pairs of glasses to the needy in 3 years.

Those who were already fans cheered loudly. Many people compared Warby Parker to Tom’s Shoes.

I hadn’t selected Tom’s to write about yet  because I believed the story had been told often, and was so well known that it might not generate much excitement.

On Wednesday as I drove to work, I heard the tail end of a show covering issues Tom’s faced because of their charitable mission.  I realized that there was a lot more to the story. So here it is.

The Beginning of Tom’s Shoes

The founder of Tom’s, Blake Mycoskie, is an interesting cat.   A glimpse at his resume makes it is clear that Mycoskie was destined for success; not only did he work hard, early on he thought about how he could make the greatest impact.

While a student at Southern Methodist University, Mycoskie started a business called EZ Laundry that expanded to 4 colleges. After selling his share, he began an outdoor media company that he sold to Clear Channel.

He and his sister participated in the reality show Amazing Race (they didn’t win), where his travels on the show took him to Argentina and he encountered poor, shoe-less children.

Mycoskie wanted to do something big to help fix the problem, so he founded Tom’s Shoes, which he saw as a sustainable charitable force.

Tom’s took the traditional  Argentine alpargata, that have been worn by Argentinian farmers for hundreds of years, and designed their own version of it.

In 2006 Toms began selling its first shoes, and their story was almost intermediately published in the LA Times.   Other publications took notice and word spread; in their first 6 months, Toms sold 10,000 pairs of shoes.

The first free shoes were given away in October of the same year, and equaled the number sold.

One for One

The one for one model is straight forward and self explanatory; you buy a pair of shoes, and one is given away.  Toms shoes has been called the pioneer of this model; whether they invented it is not as important as the attention they brought to it.

What One for One did for Toms was create contagious word of mouth marketing.  Consumers feel ‘good’ about making a purchase, and the cool looking shoes also serve as a badge of giving honor, letting everyone  in the world know that the wearer is indeed a charitable soul.

From 2006 and that first LA Times story until the present, Toms Shoes has had the advantage of the one thing self financed, independent companies need: FREE PRESS.

Articles in the NY Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur and countless other publications fuelled the company’s meteoric growth.

Social Media was the Perfect Tool

It is certainly serendipity that the founding of Toms and the rise of Social Media occurred simultaneously; the company was quick to recognize the impact social networks could have on its marketing.

Here you have a feel good story that people want to tell and share, and a savvy company that recognizes how to use the medium.

Toms has a robust social presence, including its own YouTube Channel, a Twitter Page with over 2 million followers, and 25K followers on Pinterest.

Toms Facebook Page  is filled with  stylish shots of products, images of the good One for One has done, and fan submitted images of people with the products they love.

Both company and fan posts generate a continual stream of likes, but interestingly little actual conversational engagement from Toms; perhaps when you become accustomed to constant validation by way of the LIKE, you feel that you don’t need to actually engage.

As I viewed the stream of Comments by Others, this appeared in a stream where a customer was complaining about shoe size and inadequate customer service:

You should know that when you buy a pair of Tom’s shoes they ship a pair to a developing country, which undermines the ecomony there and can cause local vendors to have to shut down. Most families in developing countries are large so that is a number of people who are no longer receiving support. I have lived in the deepest darkest depths of Africa (Sudan) and no one is going shoeless. You need to read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Tom’s does more harm than good.

The Backlash Against One for One

The above comment by an individual within a comment stream on their Facebook Page did not illicit a reaction from the busy social media team at Toms.  The ever growing number of articles discussing the flaws in their One for One program has.

The brief clip I heard on NPR that morning brought me to and a closer look at what the criticism is based on.  Amy Costello, the Host and Senior Producer, produced a podcast outlining what she sees as a great problem rather than a great cause.

The primary and profound complaint is that Toms is not fixing the root of the problem, and in fact is creating issues in small local economies worldwide where there are shoe manufacturers and cobblers who earn their living, and employ people, producing shoes locally.

Costello highlights the work of Nisolo shoes, that turns the Tom’s model on its head.


Instead of giving shoes to ‘the poor,’ Nisolo instead sells high quality, handcrafted shoes from poverty stricken countries to the West.

Costello is not alone in her criticism – Fast Company also challenges the charitable model, where author Cheryl Davenport take aim squarely at the root of the problem:

First, the Toms buy-one-give-one model does not actually solve a social problem. Rather, the charitable act of donating a free pair of shoes serves as little more than a short-term fix in a system in need of long-term, multi-faceted economic development, health, sanitation, and education solutions.

Toms Shoes Reacts to the Criticism

Initially, back in 2012, Toms did respond to Amy Costello’s reporting, and questioned why she didn’t interview them directly.  They also made a clear statement in reaction to Costello’s charges that the company was using its shoes as missionary products, stating that Toms was a secular company.

Toms had far more to deal with than the criticism of Amy Costello, and they apparently took heed.   At the Global Clinton Initiative at the end of September, Toms announced that the company would begin manufacturing its ‘Giving Shoes’ in Haiti, employing 100 people and committing for 5 years.   Critics welcomed the news as a first step into fixing the broken One for One model.

Costello gave them credit on her podcast, while cautioning that there will be tremendous issues building a business in such a poverty challenged country.  She again cautioned against the ‘top down’ charitable model, saying that companies should ask ‘what are the root problems’  and create solutions that will have a lasting impact.

Thinking Hard About Charitable Models

It is difficult to get worked up and angry at a company that, on its face, is trying to do good.

Despite the criticisms launched against Blake Mycoskie for being a fame seeker and not thinking his mission through, his company was clearly not focused solely on making a profit.  What the Toms story does is make us think hard about how charitable causes can impact a company’s reputation.

Last week I had the pleasure of writing a purely feel good post about Warby Parker; whether the company understood it or not when they created their own One for One concept, they were protected against the type of criticisms Toms is facing because their product is fundamentally beneficial to a person’s future.

Correcting someone’s vision makes them more productive and impacts their ability to earn more and therefore change their own life. In the impoverished countries where they are giving, they are not in danger of putting eyeglass  manufacturers out of business.

And then I had a  conversation about charitable good with the founder of a much smaller brand, League Collegiate Outfitters.

When discussing how they might grow their brand awareness by using Social Media to better communicate the incredible work they’ve done in regards to Social Responsibility, Drew Wolf immediately reacted with genuine concern.  He needed me to understand that the work they have been doing quietly for years was NOT a marketing gimmick, but genuine and heartfelt.

That  is the reason it works, and his comments stopped me in my tracks.

As a marketer, it is easy to get caught up in the feel good stories of cause marketing, and get excited about their ability to become social media word of mouth success stories.

But the Tom’s story and the mounting backlash against it should make companies that consider charitable donations as a marketing tactic stop and think hard both about their mission to do good, and the problems that may arise if they haven’t thought it through.

CLARIFICATION:  Upon the publication of this post, Amy Costello herself stopped by the comment section and had the following correction:

I did indeed seek an interview with Blake Mycoskie for my Tiny Spark podcast but was told he was unavailable. I then asked for an interview with a representative from TOMS and was told that Blake was “the only spokesperson for TOMS”. I then sent TOMS a long list of questions in ADVANCE of posting my podcast, asking for responses, and received nothing in reply.

23 thoughts on “Social Justice: Toms Shoes – Not the Story You Might Expect

  1. tinyspark_org says:

    Thanks for mentioning my work, Amy. Just a couple of clarifications: I did indeed seek an interview with Blake Mycoskie for my Tiny Spark podcast but was told he was unavailable. I then asked for an interview with a representative from TOMS and was told that Blake was “the only spokesperson for TOMS”. I then sent TOMS a long list of questions in ADVANCE of posting my podcast, asking for responses, and received nothing in reply. 
    I also want to take up your keen observation that the company rarely engages in debates about the issues surrounding its one-for-one business model. I have yet to see an interview with Blake Mysoskie in which he answers the critical and fundamental concerns that I, and many others, have raised about his business. The majority – if not all – of the interviews he takes part in are glowing profiles of his company and its mission. If such interviews exist, please send them my way. And while I was encouraged to see the company’s recent announcement about its decision to manufacture shoes in Haiti, I, like you, wish the company would engage in public and meaningful debates about the important questions you ask in this blog post. 
    I would welcome now, as I did when I posted my original podcast, the opportunity to interview Blake about his product and the one-for-one business model he espouses.
    Thanks again for continuing the important discussion about this highly successful company.

  2. AmyMccTobin says:

    tinyspark_org Thank you Amy for stopping by and commenting, and thanks especially for clarifying that you did indeed ask the Toms founder Blake Mycoskie for an interivew… I will correct my post.
    I was struck by your interview that ran on my local NPR station because I, like many others, had not thought long and hard about Toms One for One  other than in passing admiration.   Locally I am involved in a Woman’s Resource Center that provides low income women with training, clothes and interview preparation.  This story reminds me of the Exec. Director’s frustration with a local charity that provides food in the backpacks of school children to be taken home to their hungry families.   The frustration is that yes, it helps the hungry, but it does nothing to fix the cause of their hunger – lack of employment and lack of employable skills. the cycle of hopelessness continues.

  3. stockwell says:

    kmueller62 AmyMccTobin That’s a fascinating story, and one that should be getting more exposure. It’s a conversation worth having.

  4. tinyspark_org says:

    AmyMccTobin tinyspark_org Thanks for the correction. Also, my interview that you heard last week was on PRI, not NPR. (Lots of people confuse them!) I was interviewed by The World’s host, Marco Werman. You can hear the interview here, and also read the string of interesting listener comments coming in:
    You raise an interesting point about providing free lunches versus giving a family the skills they need to help them lift themselves out of poverty. For better or worse, donors often like to fund tangible things (free lunches, shoes, books, medicine, school buildings). It’s often harder to raise funds for intangible, but arguably, more meaningful interventions like training for teachers who work in those new schools; or job training for the parents of kids who are receiving free lunches. 
    Our preference for funding “aid” projects rather than development programs is a big part of the reason why TOMS shoes are so popular. Mycoskie is proud of his company’s simple motto “Buy One Give One”. As you know in marketing, simple messages can be powerful. It’s harder to garner as much customer/donor enthusiasm for development projects that are not so simple but would, if done right, likely impact more lives, more profoundly. Perhaps as Mycoskie continues to change his company, he will find a way to channel his customers’ enthusiasm for helping those in need toward initiatives that will have more impact than free shoes ever can.

  5. tinyspark_org says:

    AmyMccTobin Awesome. Thanks!

  6. AmyMccTobin says:

    stockwell kmueller62 I think it’s gaining momentum – but I thought I’d bring a bit of attention to it. Thx for sharing.

  7. ArCIntel says:

    bowden2bowden Thanks Randy!

  8. hessiejones says:

    This thing called corporate social responsibility is gaining much more attention as companies understand that reputation is increasingly tied to profits. No matter how altruistic the intent, there will always be spillover into  effects into brand value and eventually sales. I don’t think that that doing good deeds (regardless of the fact that there is an inherent corporate responsibility to do so) is mutually exclusive of the marketing effect. I recently saw this quote, “The brand is what you buy. The corporate reputation is what you believe in and trust. It’s not an either/or. You need both.”
    The reality is for any corporation is that profits come first. What a company does to attain that will NOW be through a combination of sales, branding and reputation. Building a brand includes the things you do as a company inside the company and within the community. These are the stories that will ultimately affect both the brand and the corporate reputation.

  9. Great post Amy! When I was in university, we had a long debate about companies like TOMS and their CSR programs integrated within their branding.
    The thing is, these programs sound great to us – buy a pair a shoes, and feel good about your donation. It justifies the higher price, for what is a really cheap shoe. But by giving away shoes, they’re really hurting the local economy wherever they send the donations to.
    A HUGE difference with Warby Parker is that they donate supplies, glasses, and money to local non-profits that HELP entrepreneurs establish stores and eye clinics wherever they’re needed. The entrepreneurs still sell the glasses, just at a very low cost. This is better, as it stimulates the economy and gives affordable eye care to people around.
    Another company that I like is FIGS ties – for every tie you buy, they’ll donate a school uniform to a local non-profit so someone in need can attend school. Often times, children can’t attend school because they don’t have proper uniforms. By supplying uniforms, you can educate a child in need, which greatly affects their future – they’re more likely of getting a job, and providing for their family.
    I like the ideas of these Philanthropic Brands, but you need to make sure that you go for the root causes, not just supply free product. That doesn’t necessarily help.

  10. tinyspark_org says:

    hessiejones Thanks Hessie. I’m very interested in TOMS’ branding strategy. Founder Blake Mycoskie has boasted in the past that his company has to spend zero on marketing and advertising; it’s all word-of-mouth and social shares.  In my research for my original TOMS investigation, I interviewed someone who talked to me about the children from developing nations who are used to promote TOMS Shoes. We see their smiling faces all over the company’s website, pictures of them hugging founder Blake Mycoskie, and close-up shots of the TOMS label on the children’s shoes. She asked, “Are these children recipients of aid? Or are they uncompensated models in an ad campaign of a for-profit company?” I wasn’t able to include this specific debate in my final story but it’s a question that’s remained with me.  And it’s one worth raising as more corporations enter the “social good” space.

  11. AmyMccTobin says:

    danielghebert Hi there Daniel – the other huge difference with Warby Parker is that their glasses make people something like 35% more productive – corrected vision raises their income earning opportunities. AND, they aren’t putting local businesses out of work.  
    I didn’t mean this as a ‘get on Toms’ post – just wanted us all to stop and think, like they obviously have, about the best way to do good.  
    I had never heard of Figs ties, only Figs scrubs, so I will check them out. THanks!

  12. AmyMccTobin says:

    tinyspark_org hessiejones Hmmm… that is even more to think about.   
    And as far as the ‘free press,’ I guess there is good and bad in that.   On FB I was called out for having an ‘agenda’ against Toms because of this post.  The comment was made “isn’t doing good always good.”   The point of this post is to make us all think hard about that answer.

  13. AmyMccTobin says:

    And Toms is listening too… not to me, but to AmyCostello and other critics.

  14. tinyspark_org says:

    AmyMccTobin tinyspark_org hessiejones No, “doing good” is NOT always good. In fact, you can cause harm on the road to trying to do good if you’re not careful. The “social good” space  would benefit from more awareness and a lot more caution before companies and individuals jump into this space, especially when you want to proceed in regions and communities far from your own. I feel the same way about the adage, “Doing something is better than doing nothing.” That’s not necessarily true either. 
    In my Tiny Spark podcast I investigated the harm caused by well-intentioned medical volunteers who went to Haiti post-quake. ( I was told by seasoned medical professionals that it would’ve been better for those volunteers to have stayed home given the harm they caused to patients.
    And as far as you having an ‘agenda’ against TOMS, Amy, I’d say the points made in your blog and in this thread are constructive. It’s the reason why TOMS is tweaking its biz strategy – because of the constructive criticism it received. If these kinds of dialogues weren’t useful, TOMS would have changed nothing. The proof, to your Facebook commenter, is in the pudding.

  15. samfiorella says:

    Is it fair to put the fate of developing countries on a business? Can a business truly effect ‘the root cause of poverty” that’s often rooted in history, culture, politics, geography etc.? Such solutions require a willingness of the people that live in that country and the support (or pressure) of other countries. So the criticisms of Toms is a bit harsh. 
    However, any business that makes a profit by linking its product or brand to supporting those in need, should expect that it will be questioned by the same medium it used to build its business. I agree that helping employ locals would be a better service than giving away product; however, at least their doing something. They cared. More than I can say about most of those criticizing Toms.

  16. tinyspark_org says:

    samfiorella You raise great questions, Sam. And yes, extreme poverty is one that is complex and multifaceted and finding a solution to it is certainly too much to put on the back of one company. Critics of the TOMS Shoes model say, among many other things, that free shoes are not ADDRESSING the root causes of poverty; I don’t think anyone has asked the company to SOLVE poverty. It’s an important distinction to make. 
    Over the years, founder Blake Mycoskie has tweaked the mission of his company. He used to proclaim that there were millions and millions of children around the globe who don’t have shoes. But many began to question that assertion, including the blogger Saundra  Schimmelpfennig in this video about the need (or lack of need) for imported shoes around the world: Mycoskie also used to say TOMS shoes went to children “who didn’t have any”. Now he says they go to children “in need” presumably acknowledging that many children who receive TOMS already have shoes. 
    Raising the question about the need for free shoes, imported from other nations, and distributed freely in impoverished communities, is at the crux of what you’re asking here. Through its marketing, TOMS has led consumers to believe that there is a need for free shoes around the world and that the Buy-One-Give-One model is an effective way to address that perceived need. I think it’s fair, and important to ask, whether there is a need for free, imported, canvas shoes around the globe. I would also say that much of the critiques of TOMS has been done thoughtfully and are based on evidence from the field. And as I’ve said in other comments, TOMS recent announcement about its new factory in Haiti is evidence that these critiques are not unfair; they are in fact vital if we are to continue to try to “do good” with our consumer dollars.
    Finally, you are free to question the motives of TOMS’ critics. As for me, I do it because I care very much about the RECIPIENTS of our well-intentioned efforts to “do good”. If there are more effective ways to help them through business models and harnessing the power of consumers, I’m interesting in finding out how to move forward as responsibly and effectively as possible. I  bet the folks at TOMS Shoes would have the same goals.


  17. AmyMccTobin says:

    dbvickery That entire post has me thinking a lot. samfiorella nailed it in his comment.

  18. dbvickery says:

    AmyMccTobin Saw that and pretty much agreed w/ samfiorella ‘s point

  19. krissierae says:

    curtismchale just had this convo Mon w/ coworkers, hadn’t seen the article yet, this video sparked it, hysterical

  20. curtismchale says:

    krissierae ha that’s great. love the hair

  21. AmyMccTobin says:

    samfiorella I think you are right… on all counts.However, I haven’t read any overly harsh criticism of Toms – I thought Amy Costello’s reporting was fair.

  22. […] week we  focused on Toms Shoes and the challenges it is facing as the impact of its One for One initiative is being called into […]

  23. […] from, and they can find it out and spread the word quickly.    This means that companies like Toms Shoes, can ride the wave of feel good word of mouth that social media facilitates, but they also must […]

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