Sunday, October 5, 2014

All for one and "One for One.®"

In my process of considering an artifact that I could argue as a “global commodity,” I was stumped. Nothing clicked. Nothing felt right. What products did I consume in my everyday life that would both emotionally engage me and also have material to research freely available? Frustrated, I looked down from my notebook to… my shoes.

These shoes. Minus creepy-crawly-antennae-creature.

              I’ve invested more than a little bit of money into the shoe-making, shoe-giving company known as TOMSThese shoes are the most comfortable vessels I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing upon my feet. However, on par with comfort, the shoes offer two points of social connection: to my friends and to members of communities in developing countries. Both of these connections further cement this artifact as a global commodity in my life and in the lives of others. Between my roommate and I, the ritual of receiving the TOMS catalogue and looking through their website for the monthly deals is something that goes back to our freshman year. Despite our college student budgets, our TOMS collection numbers over fifteen pairs. Our regard of the TOMS brand illustrates its status as a commodity, as we are willing to pay essentially twice the price for one pair of shoes. 

Exhibit A from my wish list: Twice the price for half the fabric? So worth it.
Taken from the TOMS website.
             However, the other end of this balance involves the recipients of TOMS’s “giving shoes” in developing communities for whom these shoes are also a global commodity. To be a recipient community implies a visibility and acknowledgement of global disparity and need. Sending these simple canvas shoes as a catalyst for better health practices in impoverished areas, rather than simply writing a check for a self-sustaining improvement programs, creates a commodity status for the shoes because they are a material good to be given away or received. 

             Thusly, the TOMS shoe has been cemented as a commodity worldwide and, therefore, a staple of the hip, modern wardrobe. Note the hipster in their natural habitat, feet clad in red TOMS, and the resulting TOMS tan line from years of use:

Note: that hipster is me.

As my infatuation with TOMS is entirely evident, I was hesitant to delve into the minutiae of production and the grittier details of a for-profit charity company. I headed first to the company’s website for more information beyond the newest style options. Under the tabs of “TOMS Company Info” and “Blake Mycoskie,” one can read about the inspiring story of founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake’s journey through Argentina, where he came upon the design for the shoes in the indigenous peoples’ alpargata footwear (“Blake’s Bio”). Originally, TOMS was founded in Venice, California in March of 2006 (“One for One.®”). Today, the company is based in Santa Monica, California and is comprised of Toms Shoes and Friends of Toms, the giving partners. According to the One for One.® portion of their website, these giving partners currently number more than 100 and are involved with shoe-giving, sight-restoring, and water-providing. Alongside the facilitation through the use of giving partners, TOMS is a part of the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) and members of Textile Exchange ("Corporate Responsibility").

This map is provided to show the extent of TOMS influence around the world.  So far, over 60 countries have received over 10 million shoes. Meanwhile, TOMS’s more recent project of sight restoration has been implemented in 13 countries with 200,000 peoples’ eyesight restored, repaired, or evaluated. The newest project, launched in 2014, is TOMS Roasting Co. which provides clean water currently in 5 countries (“One for One.®”). However, I will be focusing on the longest-running and main project of the TOMS movement, the shoes, as these are an example of a global commodity for the combination of purchasers, givers, and recipients.

              Each year, the company puts out a Giving Report in which the impact for the previous year is analyzed and the mission for each sector of the company is elaborated. In the 2013 Giving Report, TOMS responds to critiques about its business model. Some critics, like the ones mentioned in this Slate article, argue that the giving model doesn't do enough to address the sources of poverty but rather makes consumers feel good about their activism through purchasing power. One of the first sections of the 2013 Giving Report underlines the approach of the TOMS company: 

"When you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes, you’re also helping improve 
the health, education and well-being of a child. But why don’t we 
give water, medicine or something else? Actually, we partner with 
humanitarian organizations addressing those needs and support 
them with shoes, which then protect kids from infections and rough 
terrain and help make it possible for them to attend school" 
(TOMS Giving Report 2013).

The language of the Giving Report suggests that the company is aware of their limited scope of international aid, though the efforts of providing shoes allows more sustainable programs for poverty-alleviation to flourish more efficiently by preventing diseases such as Hookworm and Tetanus (TOMS Giving Report 2013). There are three types of giving shoe, pictured here (and taken from the TOMS website):

Feedback from Giving Partners has led to the evolution of the original canvas giving shoe, resulting in thicker canvas and thicker rubber soles for durability. The winter boot is given in colder climates, such as Eastern Europe, Central Asia, parts of South America, and the United States. The last shoe, the sport shoe, is currently only provided within the United States, though the "Gift of Shoes" tab of the website indicates that the company plans to expand this model to other giving locations. 

             The locations and nature of the factories that produce TOMS has been under scrutiny by and the source of some controversy for international aid groups. The most current listings for factory locations are in Haiti, Argentina, China, India, Kenya, and Ethiopia ("Gift of Shoes"). The controversy of these locations involves the criticisms that the TOMS company does not employ local laborers or that they may use unethical methods of production. However, the 2013 Giving Report specifies that "[k]ids don't make our shoes.  Our factories in Argentina, Ethiopia and China are all third party-audited to ensure they employ no child labor and pay fair wages" (15). Mycoskie has also pledged to have TOMS produce one-third of its shoes in the countries in which they are donated (Keating 2013). This will be a relief to local markets as it will provide jobs to local laborers and not flood the market with foreign-made goods. It is doubly a relief that human trafficking and slavery are prohibited and third-party auditors monitor these claims. It will forever be a relief to my brain knowing that children receiving these shoes aren't also constructing my beloved shoes.
Hopefully. God, I hope not. Don't you dare, Blake!
              Taken from the TOMS website.
      One of the most successful aspect of this "Philanthropic Capitalist" system lies in the marketing. Over 500 retailers carry this line of shoes in the countries of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany, and France (Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative 8). Otherwise, shoes are always available for purchase from their online shop. TOMS relies heavily on social media and enthusiastic activism from its employees, interns, and consumers. Young adult interns, promoting the product through campus clubs, style your sole parties, and DVD screenings, are the lifeblood of the company (Daniels Funds Ethics Initiative 9). They create the appeal, the aesthetic, and the illusion of the global commodity as being an activist commodity. Without the mostly free work of these interns and the word-of-mouth appeal from prior consumers, TOMS shoes would not be, most likely, the global commodity that they are today.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of TOMS as a a brand, business philosophy, and model, I have no doubt that we'll continue to see many products continue to be sold in this manner. The creation of a product as a double-edged global commodity, driven by consumer desire and recipient necessity, will most likely rise in popularity as a business model for years to come. In the meantime, I'll continue to be a walking advertisement for TOMS in my consumption of almost all of their products.

Or a lying down advertisement. Standing isn't hip enough.

"Blake Mycoskie." TOMS : One for One. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
"Corporate Responsibility." TOMS : One for One. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
"Gift of Shoes." TOMS : One for One. TOMS, 2014. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
"Giving Report." TOMS: One for One (2013): 4-14. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
Keating, Joshua. "TOMS Is Listening to Its Critics, But Buying Sneakers Still Isn't a Good Way to Help the Poor." Slate Magazine. N.p., 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.
"One for One." TOMS : One for One. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
"TOMS: One for One Movement." Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative (n.d.): 8-9. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.