Keep Your Shoes (and Your Dignity): “A Day Without Dignity” 2012 Speaks Out Against SWEDOW, GIK, and Whites in Shining Armor

TOMS Shoes are very popular among yogis, hipsters, and socially conscious urbanites. So as you might imagine, I see a lot of people wearing them here in Austin (a bastion of progressive thought and non-traditional lifestyles in the heart of the thoroughly conservative Texas). Some friends of mine attended a wedding here where the newlyweds requested that their guests wear a pair of TOMS shoes in lieu of bringing a wedding gift. There is always at least one pair of TOMS on the shoe rack of my yoga studio; DJ Dave of Fog and Smog (the group that broke out with “Whole Foods Parking Lot”) acknowledges that they are ubiquitous among the “yoga girls” of LA, at least.

This, unfortunately, means that I sigh internally every time I go to yoga class – not because I oppose the intention, but because the average consumer has no idea that the TOMS Shoes model, and GIK (gifts-in-kind) programs in general, don’t usually help – and can sometimes do more harm than good.

Aid bloggers, development snarks, and other pundits have been crusading against these kinds of programs for years and have even coined a term for it – SWEDOW (an oh-so-clever acronym for “stuff we don’t want”). It’s easy to use this to rant and rave about random useless crap that gets sent to humanitarian projects and aid relief missions, such as sending used yoga mats to Haiti, expired medicines to Indonesia, or used tea bags to medical clinics in India (true story: this happened when my father-in-law was working in medical missions in a clinic there). But some things are less intuitive, like donating baby formula to Darfur, or World Vision’s program of sending t-shirts with the losing Super Bowl team to Africa, or – as we will discuss today – TOMS shoes.

The TOMS one-for-one donation model seems, at first, to be an innocent and well-intentioned enough idea. The socially-conscious Western shopper buys a pair of trendy shoes, and TOMS donates a free pair to a poor child in a developing country. This, of course, operates under the assumption that there is an absolute dearth of shoes in the developing world where millions of children need them. While shoes are important to protect people from parasites and other soil-transmitted infections, there are several things wrong with building a business on this assumption: first, that people in poor countries do not have access to shoes; second, that what people in poor countries need most are shoes; and third, that giving out free shoes to people in poor countries will be all that helpful.

To address the first point: yes, there are shoes in poor countries. There are lots of them, in fact. It is extremely common to see local vendors selling clothes and shoes on the street or in open-air markets in pretty much any underdeveloped country you can think of. My husband saw them all the time when his family went to the local markets in Zimbabwe, where he lived as a kid; Paul Theroux buys them to wear while writing his travel novels.

Not only are shoes available in most of the places where TOMS does its “shoe drops,” but shoes are not exactly on the very top of the priorities list of most communities. If you think about this from the perspective of struggling communities in the U.S., it might make more sense: during the recession, certain areas had extraordinarily high unemployment rates and, as a result, missed mortgage and rent payments, lost their homes, experienced food insecurity, and could not afford their medical bills. Now imagine the response you would get if you went into, say, a trailer park in Detroit with a bunch of TOMS shoes and tried to distribute them to people as charity handouts. Somehow it does not paint such a rosy picture.

Finally – and most importantly – injecting huge amounts of free clothes and shoes into these markets has the potential to undermine local textile manufacturing and shoe repair businesses and put the above-mentioned vendors out of business, or significantly damage their livelihoods. While on the surface it seems like needy children are still getting shoes, shoes wear out eventually – and economies, which sustain communities, are not so easily repaired.

I thought of a yoga analogy, since the yoga studio I attend just celebrated its one-year anniversary and TOMS shoes are so popular among DJ Dave’s beloved “yoga girls.” Yoga is extremely popular in Austin, and there are dozens of independent, teacher-run yoga studios all over town, each with its own unique atmosphere and clientele. While yoga often has a spiritual aspect, the reality is that teachers and instructors have to charge for the classes to make a living. But let’s say that a yoga conglomerate based in New York City decides to “serve the Austin yoga community” by opening up a chain of absolutely free yoga studios – for every membership purchased by a New Yorker, they will give one free one to an Austinite. Do we need a chain of free yoga studios here? Absolutely not, but the yoga conglomerate never asked – they just showed up. Naturally, some Austin yogis will stick with their studios out of a sense of loyalty or because they like their teachers, but the average consumer will probably switch to the free studio – and anyone who decides to start practicing will probably sign up there as well. If most of their customer base leaves for free yoga, the aforementioned studios will lose revenue and eventually have to close up shop. All the yoga teachers will be out of work. Then, a year later, the NYC chain leaves. Now Austin has no yoga studios, and no yoga.

This is admittedly a highly frivolous example, but it still makes the point – it is foolish to provide free goods without asking if they are needed and assessing whether the donations will do more harm than good. Not to mention the fact that the money spent on TOMS Shoes could be put to much more sustainable solutions. Last year, Saundra Schimmelpfennig launched “A Day Without Dignity” as a counter-campaign to the TOMS “A Day Without Shoes” to raise awareness about the damage that GIK programs can do to local economies in developing nations:

This year, A Day Without Dignity 2012 is focusing on Local Champions – the antithesis to “Whites in Shining Armor.”

Journalist Amy Costello takes a closer look at TOMS Shoes in her podcast Tiny Spark, including examining the giving partners through which TOMS operates (and questioning whether those partners really serve the children most in need of shoes) and the true motivations of its founder, Blake Mycoskie. You can see the mixed reactions in the comments thread below: some are grateful for being more informed, some give props for calling attention to what they see as a problem, and some are outraged that Costello would question TOMS’ altruistic motives. Unfortunately, this is the difficult part of calling out these kinds of programs: people want to feel good while doing good, and they feel insulted when their good intentions are scrutinized. But ultimately we need to understand that aid should be about those being helped, and not about us and whether or not we feel gratified when buying a pair of shoes.