International | March 22, 2017 at 11:49 am

One-for-None: Aid Dependency and the “TOMS Model”

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TOMS is a brand popularized for its laceless shoes, and more recently it has released several new models and a pricey line of sunglasses. For every pair of shoes purchased, another pair is donated to women and children in need. For this, TOMS has received ample praise, gaining popularity for its innovative, impact-oriented brand that also makes products consumers enjoy. However, this seemingly idyllic model has a serious flaw: profit takes precedence over impact.

The TOMS model has been under fire of late for its shortcomings in measurable impact. The brand boasts a “one-to-one” model, promising that for every purchase, the brand will “help a person in need.” Help, however, is a relative term — is the gift of a pair of shoes to be praised when 94 percent of young girls in Uganda report trouble attending school because of poor menstrual health care, with many dropping out of school altogether? Is donating shoes an effective way of aiding impoverished communities when an estimated 800 million people worldwide lack access to basic nutrition? In a study of TOMS’ impact, Bruce Wydick of the University of San Francisco put it simply: “You can’t eat shoes.”

Over the years, critics have poked substantial holes in the model, revolving around issues of inefficiency, economic disenfranchisement, and aid dependency. According to an article by Amanda Taub of Vox, TOMS and similar companies are “the charitable equivalents of yes men … telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want,” — revenue from their pricey accessories. In her impassioned article, she continues to explain that the one-to-one model TOMS employs is more focused on getting consumer dollars than making a tangible impact. In turn, the portion allocated to social impact is used inefficiently, though the consumer for his or her part likely doesn’t know the difference. The buyer, she suggests, purchases the product feeling that they have made a positive impact and helped the world’s impoverished many, but the true impact is negligible.

This model also perpetuates the global vision of the world’s poor as “helpless, ineffective people passively waiting for trinkets from shoe-buying Americans,” Taub explained. This damaging perspective is promoted by hand-out charities and philanthropic organizations, giving products to struggling populations without truly assessing the lasting effect it will have on the community. In turn, two potentially negative outcomes arise: the impact is either unsustainable, lasting only as long as the product does; or worse, the model promotes aid-dependency. Aid-dependency is the phenomenon wherein populations receiving external assistance become reliant on this support, and in the most severe instances it can stunt a community’s ability to survive sustainably and without constant donation. Therefore, should aid stop coming for any reason, such as an organizational pivot or a lack of funding overseas, the community may not be able to continue sustainably. The impact in these instances is net-negative, a result that TOMS consumers surely neither  expect nor support.

In response to this critique, TOMS decided to launch an intensive effort to study the impact of their contributions overseas. The company commissioned several studies to better understand the intricacies of their impact model, and several findings were disturbing. According to an article in The Economist, 66 percent of children who were not given shoes agreed that “others should provide for the needs of [their families].” Among children who received a TOMS shoes donation, this number sailed to 79 percent. Furthermore, the studies failed to prove any impact on “overall shoelessness, shoe ownership (older shoes were presumably thrown away), general health, foot health, or self esteem.”

Many also argue that the model disenfranchises local producers, whose products are overrun by the company’s charitable endeavors. A study commissioned by TOMS found that its impact on communities did little to improve overall shoe-ownership, and instead their products acted as a replacement to previous pairs of shoes, disincentivizing the purchasing of new shoes from the local economy. This outsourcing can displace local manufacturers and the workers they employ, creating further dependence on external economies and increasing regional unemployment. For a company focused on empowering individuals in developing nations, these findings are undoubtedly alarming.

In response to the issues clarified through these studies, TOMS took action. The company has worked to ensure that a third of their products are manufactured in the communities they donate to, supporting local economies instead of diminishing them. Furthermore, their newer model for sales of sunglasses has focused on addressing a more pressing issue: sight-correction, with each pair of glasses supporting a corrective procedure for the visually impaired.
Despite these fixes, the fallacies in this one-to-one model are evident. TOMS, and other one-to-one brands, benefit from their advertisable “impact-orientation,” making consumers feel good about their purchase due to the promise that some social good will come of it. This sentiment is not, however, founded in reality. If one seeks to maximize impact, they should consider donating directly to an organization that focuses on impact and dedicates itself more directly to its mission of creating effective, sustainable change and making the most of every dollar used. TOMS and other similar organizations, for their part, should consider taking the road less sexy, trading their brand emphasis to promote sustainable and human-centered development. Perhaps they could even donate this portion of their funds to organizations working on the ground, trusting that development-centered organizations will use their contributions more effectively. Some will undoubtedly argue that anything is better than nothing, but when the results of these contributions are net-negative, this may not be the case.

Image Credit: Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr

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