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The Dangers of Donations

The TOMS shoes "One-for-One" concept seems like a beneficial charity, but what is it actually doing to the economies of third world countries?


How easy is it to buy a new pair of shoes knowing that the proceeds will buy shoes for a child in a third world country? It’s the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing each purchase makes a difference in the world. But what if that same purchase that appears to change someone’s life for the better actually does the opposite? What if that purchase ultimately destroys another country’s economy? TOMS shoes found itself in this very predicament. When Blake Mycoskie travelled to Argentina in 2006, his life changed forever. His heart was broken by the amount of children living without shoes, causing pain and disease. He immediately sprung into action, creating the “One-for-One” concept that buying one pair of shoes will give another pair to a child in need. The idea was genius and his business, which originated as “Tomorrow’s Shoes” as the idea, was to donate the pair of shoes the next day, took off in sales. Over the next few years, Mycoskie also added bags, coffee, and sunglasses to his company’s catalogue, making each item a different form of his “One-for-One” concept. Mycoskie’s ideas, business, and products were highly successful, but what was the impact on those third world countries he initially was trying to reach? The results were not as positive. Constant donations of shoes actually began to wound the struggling economies he was trying to assist, and suddenly Mycoskie’s pure intentions were not enough. While many companies and organizations strive to aid and support third world countries, those same groups often do more harm than good to the impoverished economies by taking away jobs and business opportunities.

While the original idea for TOMS shoes appears a helpful solution to an issue in another country, there are many flaws with this concept. Overall, the root of the company was charity. The intention was to help third world countries and people in need. Did TOMS help families? Absolutely. Did TOMS help the economy? Not so much. For every shoe that TOMS sold, one was purchased to be donated to someone in need of shoes in another country. With the success of the company, there was an abundance of shoes being taken over to give away. In theory, this is a great idea and a great way to “give back.” In reality, by flooding the market with free shoes, it took away business from local shoe sellers. These hardworking citizens now have less business, and this may even cause them to lose their job. This hurts the economy because it’s taking away local jobs. The issue of a struggling economy was approached in the wrong way. In order to truly help a failing economy, there needs to be growth and development. You cannot give these things; they take effort, time, and energy. As one article says, “This damaging perspective is promoted by handout charities and philanthropic organizations, giving products to struggling populations without truly assessing the lasting effect it will have on the community.” In order to truly make a difference on the economy there has to be more work done than just charity. Companies such as TOMS need to invest more into growing local businesses and raising up dedicated, hard-working citizens. These two things are what will contribute to the growth of the economy. By over-donating, TOMS takes away from local businesses and workers, therefore hurting the economy, rather than helping it.

TOMS shoes has proven to be a highly successful company, bringing in millions of dollars every year. Since its creation, sales have taken off and they are now a popular and widely known brand. With this being said, there are a lot of shoes being donated every day. Not only do these shoes take away from local businesses, but they also create a society of dependency. As stated by journalist Molly Jackson, “Or worse yet, they say, something as innocuous as a free pair of shoes could push those levers farther out of reach, leaving families dependent on erratic aid that shuts out local industries' chance to develop.” Those local businesses that are harmed with the donations are led to find other sources of income. If there are constant donations of shoes, why is there a need for a local shoe store? These societies often become dependent on the fact that aid comes so frequently. This is a dangerous position for those countries to be in for many reasons. Firstly, just because donations come in often does not mean that they are guaranteed to come regularly. A slow in sales could easily throw off an economy trusting that aid will come. This dependency is also dangerous because it puts other countries, such as the United States, in unnecessary power over the third world countries they’re aiding. One of the main reasons to developing a country’s economy is so that they can gain power among other nations, and dependency directly hinders that. Developing countries seek to be able to sustain themselves, and therefore cannot grow if they depend on another society. Constant aid creates an economy of dependency and dependency hinders important economic advancement.

The efforts of TOMS shoes was not wasted and did contribute to individual people’s lives. However, in order to truly help an impoverished country, further evaluation needs to take place in order to name the deeper issue. For example, why are people in need of shoes? With a closer look it is made apparent that hookworms are a major issue in some third world countries and shoes act as protection against them. Providing shoes is a great safeguard against the diseases hookworms cause, but the shoes themselves do not solve the issue of hookworms being present and dangerous. The Executive Director of CALinnovates, Mike Montgomery explains, “While it’s much safer for kids to be running around with shoes than without, TOMS’ charity didn’t address the reasons why they were going without shoes in the first place.” The money raised from shoe sales could easily be used instead for solutions to many of the country’s other problems; problems much larger than a lack of shoes. Another question to ask would be, why can these families not afford shoes to begin with? Most likely the answer to this question is the lack of employment. TOMS could invest in local business, giving people jobs so that they can work for their own money instead of receiving charity. This not only helps individual people but also contributes to the overall economy. Cheryl Davenport sums up this issue arguing, “Rather, the charitable act of donating a free pair of shoes serves as little more than a short-term fix in a system in need of long-term, multi-faceted economic development, health, sanitation, and education solutions.” The One-for-One concept of donating shoes was a valuable short-term investment, but the problem began when it became more than just that. In order for TOMS to invest in something helpful to the economy and worth their time, they need to search out the deeper, more prevalent issues. Doing this could mean the world of a difference to an impoverished country.

TOMS, obviously, is not a perfect company. As caring as the One-for-One concept is, it is very bound to the image it puts up for American consumers. The need for them to maintain this concept is seen as greater than the efforts put into changing struggling nations. Rita Fay, staff writer for The Spectator, challenges TOMS in saying that, “The problem is that TOMS focuses too much on the consumer rather than the receiver. TOMS should be asking the people receiving the shoes what they need.” Blake Mycoskie’s idea of buying and donating shoes was an excellent effort in trying to make the world a better place and was done with the purest of intentions, but unfortunately the reality is that there is so much to think about, even for a simple donation. So is there a solution to this issue Mycoskie began to address? A final solution would be complex to outright state, but there are certain ways that are known to improve society. One aspect that needs to be improved before anything else is economy. Everything in a third world country revolves around economy. A country cannot grow and progress if the economy is failing or stagnant. Companies willing to help must be seeking out ways to instill jobs and invest in individual workers. A lot has changed in the TOMS company since the original idea was born in 2006. With such criticism about its’ charity, TOMS decided it was time to make a change to the way it gave. It acknowledged that local businesses were suffering in its presence and as stated on the TOMS website, “In 2013, TOMS committed to producing one third of our 'Giving Shoes' in the regions where we give them. Local production helps to build industry and creates jobs and sustainable futures.” Instead of taking away jobs as before, TOMS now claims to have created 700 jobs in the regions where they give. This action is a start to something that truly will impact impoverished countries for the better. They have shifted the focus from pleasing Western consumers with simple donations to investing in developing impoverished companies to be self-sustained. With the continued help to create jobs and opportunities for people all over the world, there will be growth and advancement within those societies. TOMS shoes may have begun with a good idea gone bad, but they now have changed to truly impact the societies in which they are invested.

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