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By Ashley Coale
Last week was the TOMS shoe company “One Day Without Shoes” – a day to raise awareness for TOMS’s mission of providing shoes to children who need them. Two of my colleagues took part and went shoeless.
The bare feet sparked an interesting discussion about the impact and success of the TOMS business model. TOMS’s do-good efforts are decidedly non-systemic, meaning they focus on the number of shoes donated over big, system-disrupting changes like health care infrastructure or education policy. And for the most part there is a significant lack of hard data on the business model’s impact. So how do we judge TOMS’s success?
Our discussion was fed by a Fast Company Co.exist critique of TOMS by Cheryl Davenport, who works at Mission Measurement (all about helping companies measure and improve their pro-social impact). She called TOMS’ model “broken” and gave two reasons why. First, TOMS doesn’t solve a social problem – it just gives away shoes. As TOMS explains on its website, children without shoes can suffer a greater risk of infection and disease and can be barred from school and other public spaces of access and opportunity. Davenport’s point illustrates the classic development parable about the fish and fishing rod. TOMS doesn’t work on systemic issues, but ameliorates a symptom, and in the process distorts and exacerbates local challenges.
Her second point: TOMS can only make a “feel good” profit for so long. For every pair of shoes purchased, one is donated to a child in need. Consumers in the developed world buy TOMS because they can pat themselves on the back, but eventually this will fizzle and they will buy something else. (I disagree that TOMS wearers buy the shoes for the self-righteousness – my purely anecdotal opinion is that foremost, TOMS wearers go in for the style factor).
While there is more nuance to what shoes provide children than Davenport would have you believe, I theoretically agree with what she’s getting at. She hones in on some questions that have plagued the social-good sectors for some time. The focus should not be how much money was spent or number of shoes given away – but to what end? TOMS could still focus on shoeslessness as an issue, but how they quantify their success should be what has changed because of us?, rather than how many pairs of shoes have we donated?
However, the greater issue is that we really have very little information to evaluate the impact TOMS does have. We can either read Davenport’s critique, which is largely based in theoretical claims rather than hard data, or TOMS’s website, which is also lacking much in the way of data (and is presumably biased). In evaluating a company, their impact, and their claims to betterment, we are floundering in a world of the blind leading the blind.
Collecting and measuring data in social impact has been a trying question in the field and in recent years has seemed to grow with some urgency. There are organizations, such as the Social Impact Exchange, that aim to improve evidence-based initiatives and help in the knowledge that brings them to scale. This is also precisely the niche that CSRHub is working in as well. With better data, covering a wide spectrum of issues, we begin to shed light on the positive corporate behavior as well as the negative. Gone are the days when we can only measure the negative impacts of a business – such as pollution and labor rights violations – but we must also truly begin to examine and understand the impact of proactive pro-social or sustainability efforts as well.
In addition to the lack of data, it is also difficult to understand TOMS’ impact because the jury is still out on what to expect from a pro-social business. Does a business have to address a systemic problem to be considered a successful agent of change? While TOMS’s integrated business and pro-social model has broken the mold in some respects, does it have to challenge the status quo for us to laude its efforts?
To sum up Davenport’s argument in her own words, “TOMS isn’t designed to build the economies of developing countries. It’s designed to make western consumers feel good.” Well, yes. TOMS is not designed to build developing world economies. It’s designed to make a profit and to give away shoes. So, how do we calibrate what those shoes mean? And can small acts of impact add up to something larger? I’m tempted to say yes. But until we have more information than the marketing credentials on the company in question’s own website, I’ll reserve my judgment.
Ashley Coale has a long-standing passion for business sustainability and the impact that strong, effective communications campaigns can have in catalyzing change. As the Social Media Editor, Ashley manages social media and communications outreach at CSRHUB. She is responsible for crafting and implementing content and strategy. Her communications experience includes a wide range of causes including international development, human rights, and federal and municipal sustainability policy. She holds a bachelors degree from Wellesley College and a masters degree from the London School of Economics. A native of Portland, Oregon, she now makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.
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