TOMS Shoes – Slave Free?

Logo_toms_large  It's a noble pursuit and a grand dream – for every pair of shoes manufactured by TOMS, one pair is made and given to a person (man, woman, and child) without footwear in any given part of the world. Africa, Asia, South America… all these developing nations are receiving quality footwear thanks to TOMS which in turn, creates better opportunities for these people to work, play, travel and live. It helps prevent disease and infection from walking barefoot in rocky, polluted areas and garbage dumps.


With people like Barak Obama and Bono behind this social entreprenership, thousands are jumping on board to help. Good! Great! We need more entrepreneurs willing to risk all to make the world a better place rather than focus on the bottom dollar. Yet with the increased demand for TOMS shoes and the stalwart "One For One" slogan, this creates and HUGE need for manpower to manufacture these shoes.

Question #1: With good intentions powering TOMS, are good/ethical labour practices being exceeded?

So far… TOMS has admitted that it hasn't gone Fair Trade (yet). It claims:
"We require that the factories operate under sound labor conditions, pay fair wages and follow local labor standards. A code of conduct is signed by all factories. Our production staff routinely visits these factories to make sure they are maintaining these working standards. We also have third parties audit the factories at least once a year to ensure they adhere to proper labor regulations."

'Local labour standards' is pretty broad… and it is also misleading. The local labour standards in Thailand are NOT the local labour standards in California (TOMS HQ). You might ask: "Why be so picky? Aren't they doing good enough work already without you making it more complicated?"

How would you like to received a 'free' pair of shoes that you just made last month in a factory forcing you to work 18 hours/day without food or pay? I'm not saying that TOMS operates as such, but I want you to see the need for companies to be held accountable for their actions, even when those actions are GOOD… ESPECIALLY when those actions are good! We want to take these programs from GOOD to GREAT. It would be hypocritical to be the great benefactor and hand out good shoes to the poor, when all along the poor are the ones making all the trendy kicks.

Is this a great idea? I believe so. Should you purchase from TOMS? I would say this: keep encouraging them to pursue a Fair Trade certification. Having that third party accountability can be a tremendous way of ensuring slave-free environments. Does TOMS seem better than Nike or Adidas in terms of how they treat people??? It would seem so.

I still find it a whole lot better to snag a pair of shoes from the Salvation Army knowing my dollar is going towards an organization dedicated to fighting trafficking. But if you're hell-bent on buying new… TOMS would probably be a better choice than Wal-Mart.

Question #2: Is the "one-for-one" model actually helping people in developing nations?

For every pair of shoes you buy, someone 'needy' gets a free pair. While this model sounds spot-on to us, I find it to actually do more harm than good. Like well-meaning believers bringing in mounds of free stuff to developing communities, TOMS floods local markets and has the power to shut down mom and pop operations already trying to exist in their cities, villages, towns and rural areas.

This is still one-way charity. Locals aren't able to benefit for a reciprocal relationship with TOMS, no matter how well intentioned it might be. It's another hand out disguised as a trendy way to make first-world residents feel better about their shopping choices.

Yes… I'm being hard on TOMS. But with such a bold claim that the one-for-one model is a good way to end poverty, disease and other issues, it needs to be help accountable in the highest regard. I don't believe TOMS is helping. I believe it is hurting.

True, it might not be using sloppy/deadly labour practices other major companies get away with, but good intentions can still perpetuate cycles of poverty, dehumanize folks, and keep patting us rich folks with pats on the back.

Can TOMS do better?


It needs to. As a breakthrough company, it has the influence and example to do much better.


**** UPDATE (October 08, 2013) 

TOMS shoes has wisely listened to their positive critics (and by positive, I mean voices with all citizens best interests at heart AND a desire to see TOMS still create effective change). I can't claim I've always engaged in ministry effectively. I know how we reach out in many ways is doing more harm than good. So when a company begins to understand this AND starts to shift towards better ways of doing things, I am excited… and humbled. We all need to take stock of our methods and missions, see how they are really truly helping and loving.

If not… we need to listen to our critics. For the criticism is well-placed. If we refuse, perhaps we should bow out altogether. No one likes being criticized, but sometimes we need to listen to people who know better but also want to help us realize dreams instead of tearing us down.

Check it out… 

TOMS Shoes rethinks its 'buy one, give one' model of helping the needy


Add Yours
  1. Carlos Mejia

    I’m loving Toms Shoes too! – There is a big trend happening right now – fashion with a purpose – it’s called “SOCIAL FASHION” … There is Toms Shoes, Gap(red),, all very cool with great missions… SIE is a new urban/sports company which designs SIE merchandise in order to fund SIE children’s World Cup soccer tournaments around the World… The SIE tournaments encourage positive thinking and raise money for charity… The more SIE merchandise sold the more SIE tournaments the more SIE tournaments the more money is raised for charity… It’s a unique & very cool concept… It’s more profound when you learn that the founder of SIE’s last words to his father were that “they would lift the World Cup together”, before he suddenly passed away with Cancer… this is why they started their company and why SIE raises money for children’s Cancer charities thru the SIE World Cup tournaments…


  2. Cole Helsell

    Exploitative capitalism with a gimmick is still exploitative capitalism… I really want to believe in TOMS, but I question if a for-profit company can really achieve the goals of TOMS high-minded language. Really what this company is selling is an alleviation of guilt, like ETHOS water or SIE. Sure, if you’re buying new garments, this is probably the best way to do it. But this is no ethical panacea.


  3. Ellen Grable

    Then imagine that the shoes you received weren’t even the ones you manufactured in the crap factory but, rather a cheaper locally made substitute…Toms doesn’t promise his shoes only a one for one…


  4. Valerie Bain

    Interesting article! I found this searching for whether Toms shoes are fair trade. It’s interesting that you used Salvation Army as an alternative. I’m hesitant to support them since they donated a large amount of money to anti-gay rights organizations. Then again goodwill was found to have been severely mistreating & underpaying some of their special needs employees. I guess it really comes down to whose doing the least amount of harm for the good they do….


  5. Erin Thomas

    Thanks for the comments, Valerie! 🙂
    I do believe TOMS slowly re-thinking its 1for1 strategy, looking towards better local community development.
    As for the Salvation Army, I’m careful about being too harsh. I was born and raised 7th generation Sally Ann (both sides of my family) and, while I am no longer a member, I do keep in touch with their social justice activities. It’s true many members struggle with LGBTQ people & issues, but I also know there are many Sally Ann groups that have changed. There have also been quite a number of false reports about the Sally Ann over the past few years about their treatment of LGBTQ people that’s been disheartening to say the least. As an ally & a questioning person myself, I have looked deeply into the issue and still find the SA to be a good organization… flawed like TOMS or Goodwill as you say. But I’d still use dollars to support their work.


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