Friday, March 25, 2011

Hipster Philanthropy

“I always wanted to be a hippie, but I could never get myself to…buy the shoes.” –Jacob Chapman, 2010


Jacob and I each got our first pair of TOMS shoes this week. I’m in love with mine already. Not only are my feet ridiculously comfortable, but I also get to be a smug hipster who carries a fulfilling sense of self-righteousness, because when I buy one pair of shoes, TOMS donates a pair to a child in need.

Maybe I'm feeling preemptively defensive because of a gnawing realization that I just spent a LOT of money on shoes. And because the whole "smug hipster" thing is really just high school cliques in different costumes, and I don't want to be aligned with that. But if I truly don't want to get into social cliques, then I will wear the shoes I want to regardless of their connotations. So I'm wearing the shoes.

Are you judging me, Anti-Hipster Philanthropy Individual? Let's discuss the issue.

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: TOMS is exploiting poverty to make money for their own business.

ME: I think I’d agree with you more if the company started selling shoes and then one day up and decided to do this “one for one” deal. But the company was founded after Blake Mycoskie was on a trip to Argentina and discovered that many of the children there had no shoes. Wanting to do something, he founded TOMS. I really don’t feel like poverty is being exploited for marketing…I feel like the people at TOMS really do care, and really do want to make a difference. And when it comes right down to it, they ARE making a difference! I’d rather a company give charitably for the wrong reason than not give at all. I’m pretty sure that those kids who benefit from this program are just grateful to have shoes. And if TOMS’ first priority was making money, they probably wouldn’t donate over half of it. (A percentage of sales is donated to charity, in addition to each pair of shoes in the “one for one” program.)

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: TOMS ships in goods for free that outcompete local goods, threatening local economies/businesses; a “short-term solution that could create long-term problems.” It’s the “Whites in Shining Armor” thing.

ME: TOMS works with NGO partners at all of their donating locations, and stay out of the way if cheap shoes are available to those who need them. TOMS also has factories in Ethiopia, China, and Argentina to help create local jobs and stimulate local economy. AND they don’t employ children and they pay fair wages.

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: People need medicine and food…why are we sending them freaking SHOES?!

ME: Okay okay. You have a point. People DO need those things. But there are a lot of organizations that are addressing those needs, and people need shoes too. That’s just where TOMS has chosen to focus. Why? Shoes protect children from disease and infection contracted through soil or broken glass/garbage. Many HIV positive children in other countries are at huge risk of infection from walking around barefoot. Another issue is education. Many schools require shoes as part of their school uniforms…no shoes, no education. Once children have shoes, they are able to create incredible opportunities for themselves, starting with just an elementary education. And if a kid has to walk five miles barefoot to GET medicine, wouldn’t it be nice if he or she could avoid contracting disease on the way?

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: It makes way more sense to just buy a cheap pair of used shoes and donate them. Or to just send the money to some global relief organization.

ME: But the thing is, are you going to? Are you REALLY going to put your old shoes in a box and mail them to Ethiopia? I don’t mean to sound judgmental, and I’ll admit my argument on this issue is pandering to humanity’s sense of laziness. But TOMS has a working framework already in place for the most efficient giving. They make shoes to order…addressing the specific needs of specific children (black shoes for school uniforms, size 4, thicker soles to protect from broken glass in the city, etc.). You COULD reinvent the wheel and come up with a program that is completely non-profit and just as efficient. But TOMS is doing a lot of good, and it’s easy to participate. If you wanted to do the same thing that TOMS is doing on an individual basis, you could go to Payless, find a comfy $20 pair of shoes for yourself, contact someone in Ethiopia, ask the shoe size and specific need of one child there, buy them a $20 pair of shoes that meets their needs, then send it to Ethiopia and hope it gets there. Or you could just buy some TOMS and all that is done. Painless charity! (Catering to human selfishness may be hypocritical here, but I’m just trying to address the issue.)

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: Toms may seem like a “charitable organization,” but it’s still just a business. People think they’re part of something big and benevolent, but it’s just corporate America.

ME: I came across this comment on an online discussion about TOMS, which I thought addressed the issue rather articulately: “If TOMS is able to become a successful, profit making firm, than that could send a message to other corporations that charitable giving is more than just a way to increase good public relations. Currently, the predominating belief is that profit is the ultimate end of a corporation, and that a business manager's ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders. However, as we have seen, this can create an atmosphere that encourages greed and a lack of integrity with business practices. If TOMS is able to successfully generate profit using a business model that uses profit as a means to serve the community, than I believe that will create a greater change for good than the extra $20 you could be giving.” TOMS describes themselves as a profit-organization, with giving at its core. If that’s part of corporate America, I’m okay with that. I’d much prefer successful businesses that change the world for the better, and supporting TOMS is part of calling for that change. And I like to think that “big and benevolent” and “corporate America” don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: Yeah, that whole “awareness activity”? That “One Day Without Shoes” thing? 100% marketing, you capitalist tool.

ME: Hey. I just want an excuse to walk around barefoot. Although, to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable with the premise. But I’ve decided that when people ask me about why I’m not wearing shoes, I’ll tell them about TOMS, but mention that there are a lot of other programs that help. I’ll also explain that I’m protesting against the greed-based corporate machine that forces toddlers to manufacture shoes in factories overseas for 12 hours a day with no food at $1 per week. Or something.

Really, I just want to be barefoot.

ANTI-HIPSTER PHILANTHROPY INDIVIDUAL: Okay, okay, you have a lot of valid points. It’s just that my own personal sense of integrity would feel injured if I bought and wore your stupid hipster charity shoes.

ME: That’s one argument I can totally respect. Live and let live, I say. I won’t judge you for NOT wearing TOMS, if you won’t judge me for wearing them.

Because they are damn comfortable.

7 comments:

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brandilyn said...

hahahaha. i love you!
and also, you looked WAY cute in them today. so, BAM. cute, comfy, good cause..you win.

kate said...

i had a similar conversation with one of my brothers a few months ago. you get cute shoes for charity? i'm in. he just doesn't like them because he says they look like ace bandages wrapped around your feet.

one time he also told me "you know those little flat shoes you wear that show alot of your feet?" me "ummm, flats?" brother "yeah, i dont like them... and your pants are too tight." me: "......."

we love eachother.

kate said...

p.s. you swore! and it made my day. i'm so unrefined but i always laugh when people say damn, hell or ass. the rest of em' are gross. my grandpa says "hell's bell's!" all the time.

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X W Aintablian said...

I like the way you think, Liz. You've actually just clearly articulated much of the schizophrenic arguing that has taken place in my own head. I heartily agree with your take on wishing that more of corporate America could be like TOMS. The truth is, behind the wrong motivations that predominate creating a financially succesful business, some of the best humanitarian efforts can be made through successful business ventures and profits.