TOMS: A Great Cause, or a Cause for Concern?

TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie

Read on to learn more about TOMS!

If you were asked to name a few philanthropic companies, what companies would come to mind? Since its founding in 2006, TOMS has grown to become one of the best known “socially responsible” brands, receiving the Award for Corporate Excellence from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009, followed by the Footwear News Brand of the Year award in 2010 (Start Something that Matters). The concept is simple: for every pair of TOMS shoes sold, another pair will be donated to a child in need. “One for one,” as they call it. However, this model still comes with certain drawbacks, which may hinder the seemingly ethical nature of the company. In this essay, I will examine TOMS’ history, business model, performance, and criticisms in order to determine whether TOMS can be considered a moral and ethical company under Kantian ethics.

What is TOMS?

During a trip to Argentina, Blake Mycoskie came across many children in poor areas who were without shoes. Recognizing the problems these children and their communities face without shoes to wear, Mycoskie was inspired to create a vehicle through which he could he could help solve these issues and ultimately “create a better tomorrow” (TOMS Shoes). In fact, the TOMS name comes from this idea, beginning first with the moniker “Shoes for a Better Tomorrow,” which evolved into “Tomorrow’s Shoes,” and finally “TOMS” (Hubbard).

In 2006, Mycoskie officially launched the TOMS brand, producing shoes modeled after the traditional alpargata cloth slip-ons worn in areas like the ones he visited in Argentina. For each pair sold, one pair is donated to a child in need. To execute this, TOMS partners with humanitarian organizations around the world, who are referred to as Giving Partners. These Giving Partners help TOMS in identifying communities in over 40 countries that, given certain economic, health, and educational needs, would be best served by the TOMS program (TOMS Giving Report 2012). The shoes provided are made to order, which allows TOMS to collect accurate size information from the children in a chosen community, and presented to them through “shoe drops” organized by Giving Partners.

Locations where TOMS currently gives shoes

By providing shoes for kids, TOMS confronts several key health, education, and economic issues. Children walking without shoes are vulnerable to soil-based infections – including hookworm, podoconiosis, jiggers, and tetanus – and other diseases, not to mention the difficulty of rough terrain. Often in developing countries, children must take long walks to procure clean water, receive medical help, or reach their school (TOMS Giving Report 2012). The shoes TOMS donates allow these children to reach their destinations safely. Plus, in many cases, proper footwear is required in order to attend school. TOMS caters to the needs of specific communities, providing a simple, black style required by some schools, or more colorful styles if the community allows for it, like they do in Argentina (TOMS Giving Report 2012). To TOMS, ensuring that children are able to receive an education, and thereby create future opportunities for both themselves and their communities, is essential.

Performance & Awareness

In 2010, just four years after its founding, TOMS surpassed the one million mark in shoe donations (Bitici). By October of 2011, that number had doubled (TOMS Giving Report 2012). Accordingly, TOMS’ revenues also jumped, growing from an estimated $9.6 million in 2008 to $20.1 million in 2011 (PrivCo). The charity aspect of TOMS’ products provides the company with an advantage over other “regular” brands. Providing shoes to children who lack them adds an extra incentive for consumers to purchase TOMS’ shoes and leaves them with a “feel-good” quality. Because of the “One for One” concept, consumers are also able to understand exactly what buying a pair of TOMS means. Fueled by the simplicity and tangible nature of its cause, the popularity of TOMS’ shoes and its mission has proliferated.

Mycoskie and team members on TOMS’ One Day Without Shoes

Awareness of the brand has also grown through TOMS’ “One Day Without Shoes.” On April 10, 2012, TOMS held the fifth annual “One Day Without Shoes,” during which participants were encouraged to go without shoes for all or part of the day. Mycoskie explained the purpose of the event in a blog for the Huffington Post, stating “you’ll quickly realize how uncomfortable it can be, and our hope is that this feeling creates a lasting connection you have with the need TOMS shoes aims to address. It’s also likely that your friends, colleagues, and strangers will ask, ‘What are you doing? Where are your shoes?’ and that provides you with an opportunity to share the story” (Mycoskie). The event has continued to expand over the years, and in 2012, events and walks were held nationally in all 50 states and internationally in 48 countries around the world (Niemi and Henning). Over 275 college campuses and even celebrities – from Jack Johnson to Josh Radnor and Miley Cyrus – took part, helping spread awareness of the cause even further.

Potential Problems

Despite its good intentions, TOMS has faced serious critiques of its business model, the main issue being that in simply giving away shoes, TOMS fails to solve greater social and economic problems. As Cheryl Davenport of Fast Company’s Co.Exist puts it, “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” (Davenport). Indeed, the shoe drops orchestrated by TOMS and its Giving Partners do little to solve underlying problems. Free shoes, while solving certain issues in the short-term, provide no direct benefit the local economy, nor do they create jobs in the community for the long term. They may even undercut local businesses and economies (Davenport). Granted, TOMS has advanced a solution for the here and now, but there is potential to do even more – to support the long-term goals of these communities.

Another possible complication regarding TOMS’ model is its actual merchandise. As consumer items, and ones that are physically worn, TOMS’ products are subject to capricious consumer tastes. Even Mycoskie admitted “the biggest thing we’ve had to ‘conform’ to is to design shoes that are culturally relevant in their patterns and colors and styles and delivery times” (Bitici). What will happen if TOMS’ shoes are suddenly démodé? With such a simple shoe design, will TOMS be hurt by knock-offs? Forbes’ James Poulos thinks they will be able to stand the test of time, reminding us that consumers have embraced “for decades shoe brands with virtually unchanged basic styles, like Chuck Taylors and Vans. These venerable brands have weathered their share of knockoffs; why not Toms?” (Poulos).

All of these issues call into question the sustainability of the TOMS model, as the communities it serves will not be able to rely on giveaways forever, and TOMS must consistently find ways to remain fashionable, desirable, and relevant.


A Walk in Kant’s Shoes

Do the downsides of TOMS’ business model render it unethical? According to Kant, an ethical person is a person who acts out of the right intentions (Bowie 4). On the most basic level, I can easily say that TOMS is operating with the good intention of helping children and their communities around the world combat the problems associated with a lack of proper footwear. But would TOMS stand up to a stricter Kantian test? The most essential part of Kantian ethics is his categorical imperative, which can be summarized in three parts:

  1. “Act only on maxims that you can will to be universal laws of nature.
  2. Always treat the humanity in a person as an end, and never as a means merely.
  3. So act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time.” (Bowie 4)

The first imperative acts as a test of sorts. If, for a given action, all other actions were carried out in the same manner, would it be acceptable? In the case of TOMS, which provides short-term solutions for communities with greater economic problems, the answer would be a hesitant no. However, given that TOMS is providing any kind of aid, even temporary, I argue that TOMS is still acting in a morally ethical manner. If more aid were given universally, the world would be a better place, even if only for a short while.

The second imperative aims to ensure that all people are treated with the respect they deserve as human beings. In the case of business ethics, stakeholders are especially relevant here, and in order for a firm to remain ethical, its stakeholders must not be used, deceived, or coerced. Norman Bowie notes in his interpretation of this imperative that, “business organizations and business practices should be arranged so that they contribute to the development of these capacities” (Bowie 8). TOMS may fall slightly short in this manner, given its lack of long-term support for development in the areas it serves. But in analyzing the other areas of this imperative in relation to TOMS, the company still stands as a moral actor. While some may claim that TOMS is using its “One for One” approach simply to sell its product, and that it is therefore more interested in profits than in actually supporting poor communities, I do not find this to be at all true. Yes, the fact that a pair of shoes will be donated for every purchase does indeed help TOMS boost sales. However, I would disagree that this is a ploy for profits on TOMS’ behalf. Mycoskie has said in the past, “We’re private and we’re going to stay that way, we don’t have investors and we’re going to stay that way” (Bitici). This speaks to the nature of the company and that its mission is not simply to pocket the profits.

Lastly, the third imperative examines whether or not a company can be considered a “moral community” (Bowie 10). For this to be true, a firm must consider all stakeholders in its decisions and include them in the decision-making process. In that the goodwill of a firm’s decisions and actions essentially define the standard for this moral community, would this community in fact be moral given a particular firm’s decisions? For TOMS, considering its stakeholders – specifically the ones on the receiving end of their donations – is first nature. They are built into TOMS’ business model, and the firm would likely not exist without them. While TOMS may again fall slightly short due to its short-term focus, it still stands up as a morally ethical firm given its good and genuine intentions.

The Future of TOMS

TOMS recently expanded into eyewear, continuing its “One for One” mission by helping the restore a child’s eyesight through glasses, surgery, or medical care for every pair of sunglasses purchased (Hubbard). And though TOMS would already be considered an ethical business by Kant’s account, I nonetheless find it important to note that the company is in fact addressing its major downside. Mycoskie has acknowledged the lack of a long-term solution offered by TOMS, stating that the company hopes to install a factory in one of the areas it helps, and that a test location has been set up in Ethiopia. The long-term goal is “to have shoes made by the people we are serving” (Anderson). So while the current model provided by TOMS may have shortcomings, it seems that bigger and better solutions are on the horizon.

Works Cited

Anderson, Jocelyn. “FN Summit: Blake’s Tale Drives Toms.” Footwear News. Women’s

Wear Daily, 11 June 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Bitici, Val. “TOMS Chief Shoe-Giver Celebrates One Millionth Free Pair.” VF Daily.

Vanity Fair, 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Bowie, Norman E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” A Companion to Business

Ethics. Ed. Frederick, Robert. Vol. 17. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Davenport, Cheryl. “The Broken ‘Buy-One, Give-One’ Model: 3 Ways to Save Toms

Shoes.” Co.Exist. Fast Company, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Hubbard, Kelsey. “Sole Man Blake Mycoskie.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall

Street Journal, 7 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Mycoskie, Blake. “One Day Without Shoes.” The Blog. The Huffington Post, 10 April

2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Niemi, Wayne and Kristen Henning. “FN Faces: Toms Goes Barefoot Again.”

Footwear News. Women’s Wear Daily, 12 April 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Poulos, James. “Toms Shoes: a Doomed Vanity Project?” Forbes. Forbes, 11 April

2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

PrivCo. “Exhibit 6: TOMS’ Revenue (2008-2011).” TOMS Shoes: Doing More Harm

than Good?” Kate Sowinski, 16 April 2012.

Start Something that Matters. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

TOMS Shoes. TOMS Shoes, 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

“TOMS Giving Report 2012.” TOMS Shoes. TOMS Shoes, 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.


One thought on “TOMS: A Great Cause, or a Cause for Concern?

  1. Pingback: A Charitable Heart Within Your Business Mission – Today’s Model For Success | Leddy Business Connector

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