I was recently interviewed for a podcast about TOMS shoes, part of which was also picked up on Public Radio International’s The World. Over the course of the podcast I and others articulate arguments about the TOMS Shoes Buy-One-Give-One model that DRI and Aid Watch followers are probably already familiar with:
- While the TOMS Shoes marketing blitz implies that shoelessness is a major scourge of the developing world, this is simply untrue. Even the poorest of regions have markets where shoes are cheap and plentiful (in fact, many TOMS pictures and videos show kids taking off their own shoes to put on TOMS shoes.)
- Lack of shoes is an effect of poverty and not a cause, and giving kids shoes does very little to address the serious problems that these kids face.
- Giving away lots of free shoes does nothing to help local economies or create jobs, and can actually hurt the people and businesses that produce and/or sell shoes locally.
- The TOMS shoe drops are a prime example of aid that does something for people, rather than with them.
What’s new here is an investigation into the evangelical organizations that distribute the shoes given away to kids around the world, in countries like Rwanda and Honduras. The producer, Amy Costello, whose great new podcast series Tiny Spark is worth following, struggles to get to the bottom of it all: So what if eight of TOMS giving partners are evangelical organizations? Are those organizations delivering religious messages along with the TOMS shoes? Are some of these organizations giving only to Christians, and if so, does that mean that other people, potentially needier people, are NOT receiving the shoes? If so, this would violate TOMS’ stated company policy, and so is TOMS doing anything about it?
A video analyzed in the podcast shows a shoe distribution carried out by Bridge2Rwanda. It features a prayer circle, shots of Rwandan kids singing about Jesus, and an American celebrity performing Amazing Grace. TOMS loved Bridge2Rwanda’s video so much they featured it on their own website—but with the more overtly religious parts edited out.
Neither TOMS nor its “Founder and Chief Shoe-Giver” Blake Mycoskie, who once issued an apology for appearing at an anti-gay Christian group after TOMS customers proposed a boycott, and then erased all traces of that apology from his website once the furor died down, responded to any of Amy’s repeated requests for an interview.
On the topic of its evangelical giving partners, the only thing that seems clear is that TOMS would prefer we remain in the dark.
Listen to the podcast and comment here.