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TOMS: When ‘Conscious Capitalism’ Is Not Enough

By Cheney Hagerup
8 Mar 2014

With great anticipation for TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie’s visit radiating throughout DePauw’s campus, I had to do a double take every time I saw the words “Conscious Capitalism” broadcast on posters. The term “conscious capitalism” has arisen out of the assumption that through making ‘helping’ fashionable, we are somehow working to end poverty. The reality, however, is that philanthropic enterprises such as TOMS allow us to feel that we are helping the world without having to relinquish our role as consumers.

According to the DePauw website, while traveling in Argentina in 2006 Mycoskie was struck by the daily struggles faced by shoeless children. He consequently decided to create a for-profit organization that would provide impoverished communities throughout Argentina, Ethiopia and South Africa with shoe donations. As a result, TOMS ‘One for One’ campaign emerged, and for every pair of TOMS shoes purchased in the US, one pair is donated to an impoverished community.

I can’t help but to question how Mycoskie came to the conclusion that dumping loads of shoes into these communities was the right answer. Was there ever any sort of collaboration in which Mycoskie was told by community leaders that, of all the uses for financial capital, the greatest need lay in US-imported shoes? In my opinion, the image of a brigade of privileged Americans participating in these ‘shoe-drops’ seems only to perpetuate the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The reality is that the communities that TOMS donates to have shoes. Shoe-brigades are detrimental to existing shoe markets because no retailer can compete with ‘free.’ In response to TOMS’ “A Day Without Shoes Campaign” (a day for Americans to experience what it’s like to walk with no shoes), the “Day Without Dignity” campaign was launched. This video portrays how campaigns such as TOMS dehumanize poor people by perpetuating the helper vs. helped dichotomy. The reality is that organizations such as TOMS oversimplify the situation of poverty. In their attempts to ‘help,’ local markets are flooded with free goods. While ‘shoe-drops’ may provide the community with shoes for the time being, when the shoes wear out the community faces dependency.

We see these dynamics play out with like-minded organizations such as Goodwill, who often donate or sell clothing and textiles to foreign markets by the pound. According to Garth Frazer, Associate Professor of Business Economics at the University of Toronto, “Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel and textile production in Africa, explaining roughly 40 percent of the decline in African apparel production and roughly 50 percent of the decline in apparel employment.” Thus, the perceived shortage in apparel and shoes is not the problem but, rather, the conditions that sustain poverty.

According to Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian Marxist philosopher, in buying into these Green Capitalism schemes, we are prolonging the disease rather than curing it. He describes campaigns such as TOMS as “a short circuit where the act of egotist consumption already includes the price for its opposite.” As follows, feel-good campaigns do not initiate substantial political change. They are temporary and often cause more harm than good in the communities they attempt to ‘help.’ It is our responsibility as global citizens to break from the consumerist act. It is time that we think critically about these issues and join the resistance against systems of exploitation that perpetuate poverty.

Cheney graduated from DePauw University in 2015 with majors in English Literature and Spanish. She is from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
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