Experts agree: TOMS’ shoes hurt poor people.
TOMS is a trendy company with a new idea: for every pair of its shoes purchased in a developed country, TOMS will send a free pair to a developing one. Over the past few years, TOMS has donated over a million pairs of shoes, but has also produced some terrible unintended consequences. In trying to help, they are doing more harm than good. To understand this conundrum, consider the old cliché “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In other words, good development is sustainable. When TOMS donates a pair of shoes, it’s the equivalent of “giving a fish” to someone in a developing country. Okay, so maybe giving shoes isn’t as good as giving, say, education, but is it really harmful? The answer is usually yes.
The problem is that most places already have skilled fishermen who would lose their livelihoods if you dump a bunch of free fish into the market. Similarly, when you give a million free shoes to a community, you put local shoemakers out of a job. The sad irony is that the developing world’s jobs are outsourced to American manufacturers. These unemployed shoemakers are then unable to buy goods from other members of the community, depressing the local economy. This isn’t just a theoretical possibility; there is significant evidence showing that “in-kind” donations (frequently second-hand clothing and shoes dumped from rich countries) devastate local industries. Sadly, this is just one of many ways that sincere people in wealthy countries have hurt the very people they intended to help.
What are better ways to help developing countries? Give money, not goods (including second-hand clothing), to an organization you trust. Good organizations build up local knowledge and local industries. Good organizations never stop asking if they are doing more harm than good. And neither should good consumers—regardless of how cool a product may look.
Zach is a senior studying Political Science.