Why TOMS Shoes Has My $44

by Chavi

On Zac Mason’s critique of TOMS Shoes, found on his blog.

Zac’s critique, in short: Your money is better spent elsewhere. TOMS Shoes cost more than twice the amount it takes to produce them, so in effect, they’re making money not only off the shoes you buy, but off the ones they give out for free. There are charities that will make much better use of your $44. In addition, giving free things to poor people takes away their incentives to work, and imposes artificial and temporary changes to local economies.

Zac Mason has much more of a right to be critiquing TOMS Shoes than I have to be defending them. He was in the Peace Corps for two years and has spent time in Mali (in Africa, in case you didn’t know) where as he writes, “people drink water from mud puddles”. He was there to try and fix that. He knows a lot more about giving and about poverty than I, or any other average, consumerist American, with a conscience waddling somewhere in our brains.

However, that is exactly where his blind spot is. He knows and lives and breathes giving.

TOMS is not targeting the Zac Masons of the world, the Rwandan orphanage volunteers, or the minimalists who refuse to own more than two shirts. TOMS’ success is in taking money from people like me, people who care but don’t usually think about it, who buy things because they’re cool, who consume because it’s a way of life. They’re hijacking the already ingrained incentives in a capitalist, developed country, for the sake of helping the poor.

How many people who buy TOMS do it only because of their ‘buy one, give one’ model? I suspect that it may influence, but not motivate, the decision to purchase. In my case, I bought TOMS because they appeared on my capitalist/consumer mindwave. I noticed other people wearing them, was intrigued by their story, and figured I could use a comfortable, fashionable (for a college student) pair of shoes for $44. I felt good about the purchase, but it was because I felt I was a part of something (kudos to the TOMS marketing team), and not because I was giving money to charity.

So with no effort on the consumer’s part, and with money that would have gone to another selfish buy, the American consumer is helping TOMS help a poor child.

Zac Mason is wrong. My $44 are better spent at TOMS than anywhere else, because anywhere else means Nordstrom, or Apple, or Chipotle.

Where Mason’s critique does stand is how TOMS uses the money its unwitting (in a good way) donors contribute. If Blake Mycoskie, founder and CEO of TOMS, is serious about his social goals, maybe there are ways to modify his giving model. Mason suggests  that building toilets at schools so children don’t have to walk through feces, or  selling shoes at the right price point, might be more effective than handing out shoes.

Mason should be capitalizing on the hype TOMS generates,and TOMS on the knowledge of the people in the know. And I will continue to buy stuff if they’re cool.