The terms are being used more and more frequently, but it's important not to take every "eco-friendly" "sustainable" or "socially responsible" branding message at face value.
TOMS shoes are a hugely trendy brand, best known for popularizing the "Buy One, Give One" business model. For every pair purchased, another is donated to someone in need. I was tempted to nab a pair of the shoes for myself, but ultimately I decided against it, and here's why.
Teach A Man to Fish
TOMS gives shoes to people who need them, and that's great. But what happens when the "Buy One Give One" trend comes to an end? Will they be barefoot again? Perhaps it would be more beneficial to set up shoe-making facilities in the target communities. Provide them with jobs. Or better yet, teach them how to make their own shoes! This article from the New York Times opinion blog states the problem better than I could:
"'There is definitely a need for footwear in underserved markets,' said Valeria Budinich, vice president of Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs. 'But those markets need new technology, production processes and distribution chains that [are specifically designed for] rural areas. Models like Toms have many great features but aren’t designed to come up with that level of transformation.'"
Made in China
Check your labels. TOMS are made in China. They aren't handmade by artisans in South America. They aren't bringing manufacturing jobs here to the good ol' U.S.A. In fact, it's hard to find any information at all about TOMS manufacturing practices. Here's a paragraph taken from the "Corporate Responsibilty" page from the TOMS' Web site:
"...our shoes are made in China, Ethiopia and Argentina. We are aware of the challenges associated with overseeing a global supply chain and our global staff actively manages and oversees our suppliers and vendors to ensure that our corporate responsibility standards are upheld. During 2012, we will ask our material suppliers to certify that the materials they supply to us are procured in accordance with all applicable laws in the countries they do business in. We also clearly define appropriate business practices for our employees and hold them accountable for complying with our policies, including the prevention of slavery and human trafficking within our supply chain."
I'm not sure what that means. What are your "corporate responsibility standards?" Who is actually manufacturing your products?
From what we know about manufacturing practices in many third-world countries, we can only assume they aren't ideal. It's quite likely that your super awesome vegan shoes are being manufactured by underpaid overworked child factory workers.
Dolla Dolla Bills Ya'll
It's important to remember that TOMS is a for-profit corporation. The money you spend on their (overpriced cloth) shoes is not being donated to communities in need. It's going into rich guys' pockets. It's sitting in coroporate banks and being invested in things like offshore drilling (ok I have no idea what their money is directly invested in. I don't have access to their financials. But big banks don't typically make the most ethical investments!)
To clarify, I don't think that Blake Mycoskie (Founder and "Cheif Shoe Giver" at TOMS) is a bad guy. I'm quite sure that when he started the organization, he had great intentions and sincerly wanted to help others. Somewhere along the line though, he may have lost sight of the real impact of his business practices.
Other Shoe Options
Wondering how you'll cover your feet without your precious TOMS? Don't fret! There are other options out there.
Sole Rebels - These shoes are hand-crafted by artisans in Ethiopia who receive fair wages for their work. They're made from recycled and locally-sourced organic materials, and are the world's first fair trade footwear company. On top of all that, the designs are attractive and the shipping is free!
Sseko - I have a weak spot for convertible apparel. These awesome sandals are no exception. They are manufactured in Uganda by young women who need to earn money for university. The sandals themselves consist of a leather base, and interchangeable straps that can be tied in a seeminly-infinite number of styles. To learn more about Sseko's mission and the women they support, watch this video.
Ethletic Footwear - These sneakers resemble Converse One-Stars but are made with organic and fair trade certified cotton. The rubber is also fairly traded and FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council.) The shoes are assembled in Pakistan by workers who receive fair wages as well as access to health and welfare facilities. They can be purchased domestically via The Autonomie Project.
Still want to help those in immediate need of shoes?
Soles 4 Souls is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates the distribution of used (and new) shoes. Donated shoes are distributed to those in need both stateside and overseas. For more information, visit http://www.soles4souls.org/
Further Reading (You don't have to take my word for it...)