The Problem with the TOMS Shoes Charity Model

Remember the old proverb about how it’s better to teach a man to fish then catch a fish for him to eat? I am reminded of that saying when I think about TOMS Shoes buy-one pair, give-one pair model. A Fast Company article points out that the model “does not actually solve a social problem.” Instead, it functions more like colonialism, diving in to local economies to solve problems rather than listening and figuring out how best to help.

There are several big problems with TOMS’ model: by giving away shoes, it creates a dependency, and it disrupts local economies. Values and Capitalism points out that the TOMS model “needs improvement” because “giving away free stuff… almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.”

While it may be harsh to call the TOMS model another form of colonialism, it is fair to say that it is essentially based on paternalism. While doing research for this article, I stumbled across an insightful blog titled, A Personal Diaspora. The author of the blog, in a post about TOMS, warns that paternalism “creates dependency, removing the responsibility to provide from the poor themselves to some unknown (to them) outside source.” In other words, paternalism gives a fish and never teaches how to fish.

Fast Company suggests three things TOMS can do to improve its model:

  1. Better understand the problem of poverty in developing countries. The problem of poverty is deeper than just children lacking shoes. It is important to know the systemic reasons for poverty in a given society.
  2. Create a solution, not a band-aid. Developing countries do not need paternalism.
  3. Innovate business models, not marketing campaigns. The TOMS model is a great marketing campaign in that it appeals to a person’s sense of compassion.

Are there alternatives to the TOMS model?

There are two companies that operate from the “teach a man to fish” paradigm: Oliberté Footwear and SoleRebels. Both are based in Africa. Canadian Tal Dehtiar started Oliberté in 2009. The name itself comes from the French word for freedom and the “O” in the Canadian’s national anthem. Oliberté makes shoes in Africa using local materials and sells them in Western countries. The company went from 200 pairs sold in the beginning, to 10,000 in 2011.

Oliberté’s shoes are made in Ethiopia with leather “sourced from local free-range cows, sheep and goats,” according to an article by Good. The natural rubber in the soles of the shoes is processed in Liberia. Last year, the company expanded its line to include leather bags and accessories that are made in Zambia, with some of the leather coming from Kenya. The woven labels on the products are produced in Mauritius.

Oliberté’s website states that the company “partners with factories, suppliers, farmers and workers to produce premium footwear in Africa” and creates “fair jobs, with the goal of contributing to the development of a thriving middle class.” The company calls itself the first to “make premium leather shoes and goods exclusively in Africa.”

SoleRebels is a shoe company founded by Bethlehem Tilahun, an Ethiopian. It employs about 100 workers, and pays four times the legal minimum wage and three times the industry average wage for similar work in Ethiopia, plus covers workers’ healthcare costs.

Tilahun said something about TOMS that sums it up: “If you give a kid shoes, they wear out or they grow out of them, and then what do they have? If you give the kid’s parents a job, the whole family will always have shoes.”

Photo credits: Flickr user, OhNo!Doom Collective

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

12 responses

  1. I think you’re missing the entire point of TOMS. The idea of giving shoes is that without them, kids often aren’t permitted to attend school, thus ensuring future poverty. Not only that, but podoconiosis  and other diseases that are picked up by walking barefoot prevent people walking and working, and prevent kids from being included in their communities.

    Giving shoes isn’t about dressing people–it’s about making sure they have the tools necessary to educate themselves and earn a decent wage.

    Oh, and the shoes are produced locally, thus ensuring jobs for local craftspeople.

    1.  If these communities were empowered to find their own solutions to poverty (something that TOMS is not helping to happen) then the kids wouldn’t be going without shoes in the first place.

        1. Having lived in 2 of the countries in Africa where TOM’s gives out shoes (Niger and Sierra Leone) for an extensive period of time, I can say that shoes are the least of children’s worries….I never met a child that was prevented from going to school because of shoes. I lived in villages with these kids you’re speaking about. Their mothers bought shoes at the beginning of the school year (they are roughly $1 in the market) and many women make a living off selling these shoes. This model just seems short-sighted and may do more harm than good.

    1. They’re manufactured in China, Argentina and Ethiopia.

      They began in Argentina, where the style of shoe was first created. They moved to Ethiopia when they started doing shoe drops there, then added China to keep up with demand.

      “We require the factories operate under sound labor conditions, pay fair wages and follow the International Labor Standards set by the International Labor Organization. A code of conduct is signed by all factories. Our production staff regularly 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. “

  2. I think you’re right, but if those countries haven’t figured out yet how to maintain themselves and provide jobs to all of those in need, what is the problem? If you stop giving them shoes they’re going to have the same problems, meanwhile, if you keep providing the kids with them, at least you’re avoiding that problem. I bet you didn’t know that most of the illnesses are caught by walking bare-feet. That’s the problem with humanity, they’re very eager to criticize people who do good things, and they’re always trying to minimize their acts. Instead of being a lifeless, I suggest you do something good for people too, instead of sitting there writing useless comments that you don’t follow. I also think that you’re trying to minimize TOMS because you don’t want to look too useless yourself don’t you? So, if you want to get the POWER to criticize some good acts, you should be doing a greater one, because right now, you’re nobody.

    1. She’s just giving another perspective on an issue. I think it’s great to find flaws in a system because then it helps figure out a way to make it better. This article gives us some more insight as to what we’re buying, but calling her a nobody doesn’t help anything.

  3. Good article. But I feel it puts an unfair standard on TOMS just because they’re in the spotlight. The purpose of TOMS is not vast international development. They’re goal is to make money, and do something good while at it – give kids shoes. That’s what they promise, and that’s what they do. Not bad for a for-profit company. If we’re going to be this critical, why not set the same standard on every single for-profit company in existence especially those who “donate a percentage to charity?”

    Yes, one could take a step further and try to address the root causes of poverty. But that is for companies who choose to make it their goal. Our company does this, so we should be held to the standard to set off, but not TOMS. In fact, it’s TOMS that actually inspired us to do what we do.

    We’re a social good company called Intrinsic that sells handmade laptop sleeves from Africa. They empower people to rise above poverty through sustainable business. Check them out at

Leave a Reply