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"When people in the target community already have an economy functioning in part on the sale and repair of the stuff you want to donate (shirts in this instance), then dumping a million of them free is the economic equivalent of an atom bomb."
—Richard Stupart, "Seven Worst International Aid Ideas" (1)

Toms Shoes needs needy children. What do the children need?

"Each pair of shoes you purchase = a pair of shoes for a child in need"

Shoes for "needy children" — and a great marketing strategy

That marketing line has fueled the growth of Toms Shoes since 2006. For the company's ninth birthday, it added a twist: You didn't even have to buy anything. Nor did Toms have to buy advertising: it got loads of free publicity. "Just snap a pic of your bare feet and post it to Instagram with the hashtag #withoutshoes" wrote the N.Y. Daily News, and Toms will provide shoes "for a needy child."(2) USA Today also reported the story and noted that Toms' approach "has since been copied by other retailers building social good into their business models," never questioning whether such giveaways truly are a social good.(3)

It's time to ask the question.

Hundreds of businesses today have similar programs: "Buy one and we'll give one to a needy child." We've chosen to write about Toms for several reasons. It was one of the first, and is one of the biggest. It's the one that has been often copied. It gets enormous free publicity.

And at first glance, it has taken a more responsible approach than others. "Give shoes to a child in need" got people to buy Toms shoes, and it got free publicity. But critics charged that it hurt local markets and created dependency. Five years into the program, Toms commissioned a careful study by independent researchers to look at the impact of shoe giveaways. When the results turned out to be a decidedly mixed bag, Toms made adjustments in its strategies.

Details of the study

Toms commissioned two economists and a field researcher at the University of San Francisco to study the impact of Toms' program in El Salvador. Toms agreed in advance that results of the study could be made public.

Here's a summary of their results:

  • Children emphatically liked the shoes and wore them often.
  • They had not been shoeless before, however. Only 2 of the 1492 children had no shoes at all before they got the free pair from Toms; 80% already owned two or three pairs of footwear. Children often went barefoot, but that was because they liked doing so.
  • There was a small negative impact on the local market: for every 20 pairs of shoes donated, local shoe vendors sold about one less pair. (How significant is this? The authors of the study said it was not statistically significant. The Economist, looking at the same data, wrote that "while statistical significance is nowhere to be seen, by dint of their consistency the results are reasonably convincing.")(4)
  • Children receiving shoes played outdoors more; they spent less time doing homework and watching television.
  • Children receiving shoes were significantly more likely to agree with the statement that "others should provide for my family's needs" and less likely to say that "my family should provide for its own needs."
  • Apart from these two items, getting the shoes did not have any life-changing impact. It did not produce any significant changes in school attendance or self-esteem.(5)

The most negative finding, wrote a co-author, was the increased feeling of reliance on external aid. This was not what the company had expected or wanted.

Children who got shoes got less self-reliance. And not much else.

Toms had agreed in advance to allow the results to be made public, but you won't find them on their website. Nothing on the site acknowledges that gettng free shoes might make children more reliant on external aid. But you will find that they think it's important for children to be "self-reliant". In fact, 8 distinct pages on Toms' site, referring to an INGO that gives away their shoes, contain the sentence, "Children International helps children become healthy, educated and self-reliant."

portion of Toms Shoes website

From the Toms.com website, December 2015

The study found that getting shoes did not affect school attendance. You won't find that on Toms' website either. Instead, you'll find, in very big type announcing the benefits of Toms' programs:

"1,000: Increase in student enrollment observed by ChildFund International in Liberian primary school classrooms after TOMS shoe distribution began"

Stretching hard to show the importance of these shoes, another page says that shoes "are often required for school attendance in many countries. And every year of school can increase a child's future earnings by 10%." A third announces: "Providing children with school uniforms, which often include shoes, can increase school attendance by up to 62%."(6)

Toms commissioned a professional, independent evaluation. But their website doesn't report the independent findings; it reports only great results from INGOs with a vested interest in reporting great results. They have a financial interest — INGOs like free goods, because it makes their overhead ratio look lower. (For details see World Vision's t-shirt giveaway.) In a perfect symbiotic relationship, Toms provides publicity, shoes, and financial-reporting benefits to ChildFund, Save the Children, and Unicef, while they in turn promote Toms Shoes. The casual observer doesn't see all these financial angles; they simply see what appears to be a wide consensus that shoe giveaways are a great thing. Why else would everybody be doing it?

The reality of running a business

Although we can only speculate, here's what probably happened.

• Facing criticism and questions about their shoe giveaways, Toms decided to commission a thorough study, which they genuinely believed would show children benefiting.

• These aren't evil people. The founder seems like a decent man who wanted to believe, and did believe, he could get rich by doing good. Who doesn't want to believe that? He had been telling the public for seven years that "you can help a child in need." Surely he believed it too.

• They found qualified researchers who explained that to be taken seriously, a research study should file its plan in advance and agree to make full results public. (7)

• Toms, confident the results would look good, agreed that their name could appear with the evaluation. (Had they lacked such confidence, they could have tested the waters first with a low-key, private evaluation.)

Then the disappointing results arrived. Toms Shoes couldn't prevent the report from becoming public, but it didn't have to help with that publicity. So Toms did some tinkering — in addition to shoes, it got involved in water, vision, safe births, and preventing bullying. Anyone aware of the study (though they didn't learn about it from Toms) now saw a fuzzier picture. Perhaps the shoe giveaway wasn't so good, but it was only a small part of all the things that Toms did. It was still possible to make a better world through shopping.

In another five years Toms can study its impact of its new giveaways and make more adjustments. Or it might just decide "no more studies; people want good karma when they go shopping and we can give them that without a study." As long as consumers buy the underlying idea — entire continents are filled with needy people waiting to get something free — Toms can keep selling.

Meanwhile, their promotional materials ignore the hard facts of the independent study they commissioned, and they find ways to spin the vague and self-interested reports that they have. As a business, they'd probably collapse if they did it any other way.

Colonialism means the rich country comes first

Toms Shoes didn't begin by asking, "What is best for children or anyone else in poorer countries?" It asked, "How can we get what we want — profits and free publicity — while at the same time everybody looks good and feels good?" Needy children were just the resource it needed.

Win-win doesn't work when one side holds all the power.

Intrinsic to karma colonialism is the idea of a win-win approach. That's what this looked like at first. Toms made money, consumers got to shop and feel good, needy children got shoes.

But win-win doesn't work when one side holds all the power. When it turned out that the poor kids were getting a bad deal, all that mattered was that the real winners — Toms and the consumers — were able to feel, provided they didn't look too closely, that it was still win-win.

"Needy children" in the media

Toms' campaign feeds the media portrayal of poor countries as a mass of neediness. The N.Y. Daily News and USA Today both praised it for helping "needy children."(8)

Overall, in our experience, kids in poor countries have more nutritious diets, healthier teeth, less obesity, fewer screen addictions, better social skills, stronger family connections, and a more cheerful attitude about helping with household chores than their counterparts in the West.

But Toms has only one interest in them: As a means to sell products. This dehumanizes them; it contributes to the Western notion that poorer countries are just a bundle of neediness, wishing that Westerners to come give them something. In fact, every one of the traits listed above, from diet to attitude, is under attack from Western influence and giving.

Toms says that you, like Toms, can put yourself first yet still help those needy children.

Are you concerned about third world hunger? You can do something about it. Go shopping! This simplistic non-solution distracts people from actually giving the issue enough thought to realize that more shopping isn't going to fix anything.

It encourages more unnecessary consumption. The West already uses far more than its share of resources, and contributes more than its share to global warming. Yet it's the other countries that will suffer the most. It's already hot enough in Zimbabwe. Is it "socially responsible" to encourage more unnecessary consumption? But that's what Toms does. And it's guilt-free — because you helped a needy child!

Toms needs needy children

Toms Shoes needs needy children — or, at least, children who can be portrayed as needy. It is using them for their ability to be depicted as children in need.

Industrialists of the past needed colonies that had tin. Marketers of today need poor countries with needy children.

How different is that from the industrialists of a century ago who needed iron and tin, found a source in a poor and powerless country, and took the resource that helped them make a profit? There is a transaction. The richer and more powerful partner sets the terms, and decides whether to continue it, change it, or drop it. The rich get richer, the poor get more dependent — but it's hidden under a veneer of good karma.

Like an INGO, Toms Shoes has created a strategy that works for Toms, but only as long as the poor stay poor. That's not a foundation for meaningful change.

Notes and Sources

1. We aspire to one day write as well as Richard Stupart. His full blog is worth a read: "Seven Worst International Aid Ideas." This quotation referred to item #1 on his list, a well-intended, ill-conceived plan to collect and ship a million t-shirts to Africa. #2 on his list was Toms Shoes. (back)

2. We aspire to one day be such clever marketers. Toms got free nationwide advertising, in newspapers and on social media, which left everyone assuming that the shoes would be donated to children who were shoeless — which is not true but nobody can accuse Toms of lying. Newspapers got a feel-good story without having to lift a finger; Unicef and other NGOs got free publicity when they were mentioned as a partner; and Toms benefited from the halo effect of being associated with Unicef. "Toms to donate a pair of shoes for every Instagram post showing your bare feet," was in the NY Daily News, 6 May, 2015. The story reported that "Now you don’t even have to buy a pair of Toms shoes to provide them for a needy child... Just snap a pic of your bare feet and post it to Instagram with the hashtag #withoutshoes — and Toms will give shoes to a child in need." (back)

3. "Toms uses Instagram to give away a million shoes," USA Today, 5 May 2015: "To help celebrate the company's anniversary, founder Blake Mycoskie is giving away a pair of shoes to a needy child each time someone posts a photo to Instagram of bare feet with the hashtag #withoutshoes. The promotion ends May 21, or when the company gives away a million shoes via non-governmental organizations such as Unicef and Save the Children." (back)

4. "Putting the boot in development," by C.W., The Economist, 27 Oct. 2014. The website includes a spirited discussion at the bottom of the article. (back)

5. "Do In-Kind Transfers Damage Local Markets? The Case of TOMS Shoe Donations in El Salvador," March 12, 2014, by Bruce Wydick, Elizabeth Katz, and Brendan Janet, all at the University of San Francisco, studied 979 families in El Salvador. The study was done in "areas of extreme rural poverty prevalence" where World Vision already had a program, and would distribute the shoes. (back)

6. Sources within the Toms' website: The two numbers appear at 1000 increase in school attendance; and 62% increase. (back)

7. We often hear "Studies show that...." Among many problems with placing too much faith in studies are: (1) Studies that show "nothing happened" are ignored. If one study shows, for example, that eating chocolate every day improves your health, but 20 studies found no correlation, the first study will be news — good news! — and you won't hear the others. But the chances are, it was just a statistical fluke. (2) Even the best researchers face pressures. It's good for their career if they find an interesting result. Even better if the result benefits whoever is paying for the study. As they conduct the study and evaluate data, there are many points at which a researcher must make a decision that will influence the results. The MIT Jameel Poverty Action Lab offers a way that researchers can file details of their study; that limits (though by no means eliminates) the ways in which they can adjust their methods, and it means there is now a record of the study having taken place. The Toms Shoes researchers filed such a plan with this Lab. That meant it would have more credibility, but they had to agree to make results public. (back)

8. Toms Shoes, itself, is careful to always (and often) refer to "children in need." Perhaps they've given the subject enough thought that they find repeated use of "needy children" to be as repugnant as we do. Their various charity partners and media have no such qualms; see, for example, Unicef needs the needy. (back)