Op-Ed | The Problem with One-for-One Models

Companies like Toms have become popular because they assuage the guilt of many in the wealthy world who buy their products, while doing little to address the root causes of poverty, argues Grant van Sant.

Source: Shutterstock

LOS ANGELES, United States — In recent years, a wide range of businesses have sought to replicate the “one for one” model made famous by Toms Shoes, the Santa Monica, California-based company founded by social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie after he was inspired by a trip to a poor village in Argentina, where children lacked adequate footwear. The company, which gives away one pair of shoes to a needy child for each pair of shoes it sells and whose signature product is inspired by the Argentinian alpargata, has been highly successful, both in making a name for itself and generating estimated annual revenues of over $250 million.

The company — currently up for sale — has attracted interest from a range of strategic and private equity buyers. And, according to a recent report in The Financial Times, Bain Capital and Apax are preparing to make final bids, valuing the company at between $600 million and $700 million.

But my feelings about Toms changed after I first mentioned the company to friends from Argentina. I thought that they, of all people, would love the company. But they despise Toms. They feel humiliated and violated by the company, which, they suggest, is merely using their country. In fact, one of my Argentinian friends said he would scream if he saw another picture of a white guy surrounded by appreciative brown kids.

No single company is responsible for the morals of the market. But the degree to which Toms has been successful reveals something about the psychology of its customers, who respond positively to the opportunity to be someone’s saviour. To me, this all feels familiar: benevolent people from the affluent world travelling to underdeveloped lands and offering them help and a path to modernity? Indeed, it smacks of imperialism, something we now see as disgusting, but which was once considered a noble social enterprise — “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling put it.

Today, the world is a very different place, of course, but major inequalities remain. In this context, the reason Toms has been so popular is because it solves a real problem – just not for the kids without shoes. Toms actually assuages the guilt of those in the wealthy world who buy its products. More than anything, the company’s model offers relatively affluent consumers the opportunity to feel like they are helping others, while, in actuality, they are shopping for themselves.

Not having proper shoes has serious consequences for the children who face this problem every day. But make no mistake. Donations like these do little to address the root causes of poverty and may actually cause harm by reducing demand for locally produced goods.

Yes, the children get their shoes. But at its root, the “one to one” model is a piece of marketing that actually depends upon the persistence of poverty.

But the ultimate irony is that companies like Toms commit the very crime they are trying to erase, taking a paternalistic stance towards the societies they are supposed to be helping.

Grant van Sant is a brand strategist and founder of The Acme Agency.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Wow! This a pretty harsh view of a company who has simply been exceedingly successful at executing a model most in fashion only rally upon during natural disasters and crisis. I would argue that disparity between the economic classes has field businesses like this in America and abroad as many customers would like to do more hut may not financially be able to. (America is still by far one of the most charitable nations of the developed world.) Buy supporting such brands one can make a small if not significant and assured difference that satisfies the inevitable indulgence of shopping and the lack of access to basic footwear.

    Joseph Whittingham from Salisbury, MD, United States
  2. I applaud the courage of Mr Van Sant explaining (so candidly) the reality of the “for profit charity” movement
    My preference is to become aware of the realities (however uncomfortable) so that I least I can make better informed decisions versus living in a bubble of sugar coated fluff (the word “Delirium” comes to mind?)

    Rocio Evenett from Rosemead, CA, United States
  3. So please tell me what’s a better solution. Stand back and watch poverty or try and do your part as “little” or “insignificant” as it may seem to others. For the owner of Toms I certainly hope he’s not concerned with the negativity that surrounds an individual with A) an idea B) a business model that employs people and allows them to survive, provide and give back. C) a company that gives back period. What is your contribution? Your idea/passion that moves you to want to try and help. Instead of judge the “amount” that is helping (I would hope that’s not a competition.) Just explore a positive way in which you and others can play a part in helping out your community, other communities, how about just others in need. Yes Toms is successful, yes toms gives shoes back. Wasn’t that his idea? Good on him. Shame on the negativity.

    Nicole Sjostedt from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  4. WHAT A SHAME !!! Mister Van Sant !
    TOMS Shoes, never intended to solve the deep roots of poverty in Argentina ( or in any country ) which depends upon lots of different factors , some of which we do not even know precisely .
    Bit it did give shoes to many children ,to enable them to go to school ,
    play ball games ..etc…. That was the only ,simple unpretentious goal ,
    was n’t it ? I do agree ,totally ,with Joseph Whittingham ,MD,
    United States .
    Martine MOLLARD SAJOT-PARIS ,France-

    MARTINE SAJOT from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  5. Wow ! Mister VAN SANT ,has a strange way of looking at a generous simple action from TOMS Shoes ,which goal was to provide shoes for
    poor kids in Argentina to wear shoes ,in order to enable them to go to school ,play ,help their parents etc…..
    A generous ,simple ,unpretentious way to help ,efficiently ,just one little but so important point .
    Very difficult to erase poverty from any of ” the poorest counties ” ,since we do not get all the true informations about the real roots of poverty ,
    very different from one country to another.
    And I do support any individual or company who tries and help ,
    even in a small way ,the children of these countries.
    Bravo à Blake MYCOSKIE ,
    hoping that it will ,indeed ,inspire other companies to do the same with medical supplies ,food ,clothes .
    Martine Sajot from Paris ,France.

    MARTINE SAJOT from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  6. Why are you so angry Mr Van Sant? it is true that the cause of poverty needs to be addressed and that giving shoes to Argentinian poor children is not the only solution, but hey, how can you criticise an entrepreneur who simply had an idea and went on to: make money, employ several people, generate cash flow AND give something back. He never announced that he would change the world by eradicating poverty!
    The least we can hope is that one of the kids who received a pair of Tom’s shoes is now able to walk to school, become educated and have a better life.

    Mimma VIGLEZIO from London, London, United Kingdom
  7. OH Come on! Why complicate things to such extent. Who meant to be saviour, this is too much to think of consumers? Can we all just be a bit more trusting, appreciative, less judgemental, more grateful for all things around us? So if TOMS is non-existent, are there more happier people? Less angry Argentinian? Or may be less inspired souls who could have thought of something more brilliant and less people with the experience of wearing their first pair of shoes ever?

    Mich Lie from Central District, Hong Kong (general), Hong Kong
  8. This article was on the money. The root of the problem is absolutely glossed over with this one for one model. In the beginning it’s a nice concept, but white America always think they can fix things by throwing money around. It doesn’t change their situation, it only creates dependency on a country that will most likely hate them if they tried to live there. If you want to help a poor country teach them how to make money, or employ them offering fair wages.

    shahidah nunez from Corvallis, OR, United States
  9. Instead of moaning about seeing a white guy surrounded by appreciative brown kids, why doesn’t your friend from Argentina come up with his own solution to help the situation. And I’m sure none of your friends in Argentina are without shoes or the means to buy them, so not really the people you need to ask about the effectiveness of Toms. I’m sure if you asked the children about Toms, they wouldn’t feel humiliated but grateful that someone is trying to help them. And as for the reason why Westerners buy into the concept, who cares. The goal here is to get shoes on to children’s feet, not study the psychology of the consumer. Yours a brown faced person.

    Joy Montgomery from United Kingdom
  10. Just like most of the comments on here – I am appalled at this Grant Vant Sant article. I would have appreciated it more if he had suggested other models that might be better than the one for one model but he didn’t. It just goes to show that the world is filled with two types of people – the doers and the critics. The critics are usually jealous of the doers because it shames them and makes them aware of their own insecurities. Since I found out about TOMS I have been a huge fan and I continue to be. Many people want to do something to bridge the inequality in this world but not everyone has the significant amount needed or access to these places to do much – so if putting a shoe on a child is the best option available at the moment, why not do that. Where’s the harm in it?

    Kitty Longe from New York, NY, United States
  11. Mr. Van Sant’s article highlight the classical situation of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.
    Why are there people out there finding the black side of everything? Obviously Tom’s initiative has a strong marketing component but so what????
    There are children out there that need shoes and need them now, not when Mrs. Kirchner has solved the eternal problems of a country in permanent disarray. For once that somebody does something about it why in heaven do we have to criticize them ????

    marcellobottoli from Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia
  12. The problem is even when you try to do good…it is never enough..the roots of the problem are still there..and this should be done at very early age..educate the children that they can choose their life and that their life is in their hands..this kind of education will solve a problem before it starts…and someone has to start somewhere …I believe that Tom did a very good things..but he can’t control everything ..Governments should do more for their own people and ..from very early age ..otherwise..the problem will be there forever..
    Yael Guetta

    Fromtheworldwithlove Ftwwl from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  13. I know which kind of company I prefer to do business with, one that channels some of it’s profit into giving back and doing some good. What you are saying may well be true but if only one kid in Argentina got a pair of shoes thanks to Blake Mycoskie then that made a huge difference to their life.

    Venus Cow from United Kingdom
  14. when stripping consumers of their rose-colored glasses, it is not a pretty exposure (or aha moment, if the insight registers), nor is it an easy thing to even broach, for as consumers, we are all talking about ourselves. this being addressed in the realm of fashion, we must also acknowledge the defining reality of indulgence that fashion represents, for all its validity as an art form, consumable and creative personal expression. you have touched on an aspect of something i have pondered for some time, so i thank you – i have this morning already composed a piece to take this bit of philosophy a step further – if it is accepted, watch for it at huff post under “vicarious philanthropy.”
    kimann schultz
    president, FAShion Arts Society, IMA

    kimann schultz from Indianapolis, IN, United States
  15. It’s at least mildly ironic that the web site for The Acme Agency features the bold headline “We Build Empires” with a little kid holding a Nike shoe. I guess that is more in line with the personal politics of Grant van Sant and his friends who are appalled at Tom’s one-for-one policy. Maybe he could ask the kids who made that Nike shoe for a dollar a day in some third-world country about their contribution to the ‘empire’ that Nike and Acme have jointly created. Who needs shoes for free when you can be part of something like that?

    Bill Gilroy from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  16. The most valuable thing about what Toms does isn’t the free pair of shoes, it’s the fact that they are training consumers to think about what they can do to benefit others who have less, and more importantly, creating a consumer environment where giving back becomes a norm. Consumers – even if they are just guilt-riddled white people – should absolutely get used to the idea that there’s someone else out there in the world that they can help by just swiping a credit card. So, if Toms accomplishes that, even in a seemingly trivial way (according to the van Sant), that’s a step in the right direction, and just part of an evolution where, as the author barely hints at, the next step is a more hands-on approach to nip the problem in the bud. / Renata Certo-Ware

    renata certo-ware from United States
  17. Love the comments.

    I am not sure the author is entirely up to date on how Toms has adapted their programs and made them compatible with health and education initiatives, etc. He’s very correct that the basic one-for-one model doesn’t solve a child’s problems for any longer than the life of the slip on, but it looks like the programs at Toms might be better organized than he thinks.

    Cameron Kerst from United States
  18. I understand the indignant reaction voiced by other commentators on Mr. Van Sant’s criticism of a profitable/popular company with perfectly noble intentions, but Van San’t assessment is 100% on the money. One-for-one is simply one charitable business model. And it is not necessarily the best one. In Tom’s case, it is culturally intensive (to a certain extent), and for investors, it doesn’t scale well.

    Before I founded Proper, a cause-driven luxury, unisex bath & body line, I studied many charitable business models. In order to achieve our goal of eradicating death & disease due to unclean water and poor sanitation, I found that harnessing conscious consumer spending power by creating a consumer platform that funds established NGOs with high-impact programs already in play was not only sustainable and culturally sensitive but also infinitely more scalable and had quicker, higher impact.

    Social enterprises are in their infancy and more creative and higher impact business models are sure to follow suit. Tom’s is to be commended for the market share they’ve captured with their cause-driven brand. And it’s not wrong to question if what they’re doing couldn’t be done better.

    -Gentry Lane

    Gentry Lane from United States
  19. So what if consumers are really just shopping for themselves. At least a child is getting a pair of shoes out of it. Perhaps Toms, and other one for one companies, like Warby Parker and One Laptop Per Child, should find other countries who would be more than happy to take their goods.

    Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.

    pam bernstein from Plymouth, MN, United States
  20. What a self serving patronizing poorly written editorial.

    Should only brown people, like Oprah, be photographed helping brown children? Would the charitable act be more acceptable if Tom’s held a $1,000 per plate fundraising dinner?

    In a world where globalization of capital has made it easier for corporations to hop from one poor country to another even poorer country to pay even lower wages companies like Tom’s and Warby Parker provide in the moment, practical and short term solutions to needs that might not otherwise be met.

    Lisa Hart from New York, NY, United States
  21. My understanding is that TOMs was criticised for this previously and has since begun investing in factories, training of labour and medicine, while employing local artisans, in the same areas that they are seeking to help.
    Their website does show that there is one factory in place from 2014 with a five year plan to expand.

    This seems to me, to be a band aid solution to a massive flaw, especially when you consider the estimated value of the company. However when viewing the initial problem, ie: lots of children with no shoes, spending their lives living on landfill sort through waste to find scraps to trade, it makes it difficult to understand how the local industry would see much of a reduction in business, if there was no business in the first place. After all the kids would have shoes if they could afford them.

    Not that I disagree with his ‘white man burden’ theory. I just think it’s still a fairly new model and that it’s a much kinder model than the current imperialist practises.

    So I suppose the question is how will the fashion industry learn from the mistakes of TOMs? Would a more transparent model, one that uses industry which is already apparent in the area, be more beneficial? And will the new owners have a similar ethos and hope to grow this enterprise to benefit the world as whole, rather than just ease first world guilt while making high profits?

    CoolAunty Jen from Reservoir, Victoria, Australia
  22. It is actually even worse than described here. Far worse. TOMS are recklessly aiming to get a population with no need for shoes and no social pressure or physical dependency compelling people to desperately seek shoes addicted to them. It may be difficult for people in Western countries to understand this, but shoes are actually not inherently necessary. There are three reasons why most people in the developed world wear shoes. 1) Everyone else is and from that it is assumed to be important. 2) There are those who act judgementally, even quoting false laws in order to discourage people from deviating from this norm. 3) We have all grown up wearing shoes to the point that we are psychologically, and to an extent physically dependent upon them.

    What’s not among those reasons though is an actual physical necessity. There are a significant number of people living in countries around the world, including yours, wherever you may be, and the author’s who still do not wear shoes, out of preference – a preference so strong that they will accept the confusion, attention and criticism it brings them every day.

    But that’s the West. In these other countries targetted by TOMS, none of those reasons are present. So many people grow up without shoes, it doesn’t feel strange or abnormal to them. They don’t judge other people for not wearing shoes, and they don’t feel psychologically or physically dependent upon them as their feet have developed in the way they should from birth to adulthood without the damaging constraints which shoes place on them.

    Enter TOMS. They see an opportunity to introduce a new fashion trend. Something that looks “cool” and demonstrates status and wealth. People are given a free pair of shoes. What’s the catch? Well those shoes don’t last forever and will need to be replaced, and not free of charge. However they will last long enough for feet to grow accustomed to them, accustomed to the artificial support, and lack of flexibility, the lack of physical stimulus to the sole of the foot so that the skin softens and loses its thickness, and long enough for microbes such as athelete’s foot and HPV (warts/verrucae) to be incubated in the warm moist environment of the shoe and have a chance to take hold on the foot. Let’s face it people won’t be getting rid of those without medical care and clean water, and yet by going barefoot and building up strength of the feet, and using friction and constant exposure to fresh air, one can easily prevent such microbes from ever taking hold.

    Then you get the knock-one effects of extra strain on your knees and ankles from running or walking with shoes that make you believe you need more cushioning, and of course the snobbery that TOMS have the nerve to cite as a reason for the necessity of shoes, when they incited it in the first place. TOMS claim that children aren’t allowed to attend schools barefoot and therefore must have shoes. Even if this is true (which is unlikely in areas where the primary access to shoes comes from TOMS), such an attitude can only have been introduced by shoe companies like TOMS and their unscrupulous pushing of shoes on people who previously had no need for them.

    Imagine that somewhere in the world there is a country where everyone is fully addicted to heroin. They don’t perceive it as a problem because they all have access to as much heroin as they need as well as all the supportive medical care in place to maintain relatively productive lives. Then they discover your country. They see that none of you have heroin. They imagine what it would be like for any of them not to have heroin and project that feeling of withdrawal and discomfort onto you. And so a heroin producing company decides it’s time to end our suffering (at least that’s what they tell their customers) and donate free doses of heroin to people in your country.

    That is what TOMS are doing with shoes.

    Ben Donnelly from Isleworth, Hounslow, United Kingdom
  23. This is the REALITY, thanks for writing this.
    Almost 2 years back when I read similar articles on the reality of donation (food and clothing), I also felt the same as a lot of others have been feeling: why spread negativity, let the good work continue, but later I also felt betrayed, fooled, helpless, disgusted and so on.
    I started investigating and reading more about the reality of donations and checking the facts.
    My findings were not different. Donation without knowing the actual need or root cause of the problem ends up creating much severe long term problems rather than solving them. Ultimately we become a part of bigger problem while trying to solve a problem despite of our good intentions.
    The irony is that in most cases the donations are not made to solve the problems of the donation receiving country/society or the individual rather they are made to solve the problems of donating countries/societies/individuals.

    We need to come out of the state of belief perseverance and base our charities on the facts and support only the ones that really solve the problems and build capacity of the country/society/individual so that they can support themselves in the future.

    vinit Jain from Jakarta, Jakarta Raya, Indonesia
  24. Ok, here is my problem with TOMS – why do they assume that bare feet are a bad thing and that shoes are good? Humans have been going barefoot for millions of years, we just don’t need these sweaty rubber prosthetics! Bare feet are naturally highly resilient and healthy, but wearing shoes weakens them and prevents them from ever developing. You have super-sensitive feet only because you have always worn shoes! Going barefoot is comfortable and liberating!

    It is only because of this that people in the West have ruined their own feet with shoes that they assume bare feet are weak and painful! I bet that if we still had corsets we would be going ‘oh look at those poor girls walking miles to school with no corset’! What about the fact they have to walk miles? What about the fact they have no clean water or medical help? What is TOMS doing to solve that problem? Nothing. All they see is a ‘fashion emergency’.

    Hadashi Blacksky from Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
  25. What a disappointment to read such narrow and fragile arguments on the issue of for-profit Charity!
    Alluding to Kipling’s ‘White man’s burden’ and imperialism is becoming a bit of a Godwin’s point: whenever a company from the North is attempting to do Good, it is called imperialist… This is quite misinformed, as TOMS’ One for One policy is implemented in Southern and Northern countries all over the world (including the US), and it actually produces its shoes locally. Hence, it is not “reducing demand for locally produced goods”, and is absolutely not the symbol of a company from the North offering ‘a path to modernity’ to Southern nations.
    The imperialist argument (which should be ‘neo-imperialist’, but anyways…) is also quite ironic considering you claim on your website homepage that your job is to ‘build Empires’.

    By focusing solely on shoes, TOMS never attempted to ‘end world poverty’ (which could be neo-imperialist). Quite the contrary, it acknowledges the extent to which it can help, and chooses to focus on a specific issue where it could make a difference.

    Hence, you criticize what you wrongfully understand. You erroneously frame TOMS as imperialist, and therefore criticize it for trying to ‘end world poverty’ when it was never the case in the first place.

    A debate about For-profit Charity and TOMS is crucial, but I think this is a weak and unconstructive argument. It’s a shame BOF would publish such an article.

    Louis Cota from United Kingdom
  26. To Ben Donnelly’s comment, this fictional comparison using heroin for shoes is beyond belief and does not belong to such a debate. “That is what TOMS are doing with shoes.” – come one !!!
    Other than that, I applaud BoF to publish such Op-Eds as it stimulates a totally valid discussion. Personally, I don’t see the harm in what TOMS is doing, but if it creates certain local imbalances and emotions, I’m sure they are open to address such side effects. Businesses can’t be responsible for or replace the need for political solutions and actions. But if they choose to make a difference on their own terms, I think it is totally ok and up to the consumers to make their own judgment, weighing the arguments. Before condemning such practices, I think there are many many other practices in the industry that are of higher importance to address than donating shoes to people in need (and in appreciation of it), e.g. Use of harmful substances, working conditions and environmental conditions along the supply chain.

    Andreas Hammer from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  27. I found this article very interesting and have spent a while mulling over this topic and various comments below. It is a sensitive subject as it does breach poverty, politics and humanity on a global scale. Without meaning to sound negative or flippant on the subject, I think the fact of the matter is that there is such a huge divide between the first and third world countries, that real help for those in need has to come from higher powers – be it the politicians or whoever is *really* in charge.

    I must agree with most other fellow commemorators here; it is a pretty harsh view on a company that did set out with good intentions. As an American company catering to those better-off, it’s better than nothing and is definitely the lesser of the evils. Using this “one-for-one” philosophy as a marketing ploy is totally understandable. Everyone needs to advertise their product/service and get their voice heard through all the noise out there. If this is how they need to do it then fine, as long as they remain true to their charitable intentions.

    I think this “white man’s burden” claim is more a reflection of society than the enterprise itself. Final thoughts are how much power can one company really have, and how greedy can those in charge get without losing sight of their original charitable intentions?

    Stephanie Melodia from United Kingdom
  28. The author is correct. Campaign is successful because people believe they are helping a poor child across the world. I’ve seen Tom’s Donation shoes for sale in my tropical city (they are clearly marked as Not for Sale) which means that between Toms and the organization they use to distribute the goods, there is someone who has decided to profit. Poor kids get no shoes, Crooked middle man wins, Toms wins. FAIL.

    Elizabeth Karanja from Kenya