Toms’ one-for-one: because children this cute can’t be wrong

Did you hear? For every pair of TOMS shoes a western customer buys, they give away a pair in a developing country. To children. Very very cute children. Like these.

Toms’ one-for-one is a really nice idea – but only as long as you don’t spend any time thinking about it at all.

If you do, you grasp why One-for-One has already carved out a cherished place for itself in the Annals of Bad Aid. A perfect synthesis of Bad Corporate Social Responsibility and Development Mission Creep, One-for-One destroys local livelihoods, drives cobblers out of business, in a quest to burnish a fancy brand’s image. (At least it did as originally designed, some say the most recent incarnation isn’t quite as bad.)

It’s the kind of thing that drives practitioners around the bend. Really, there are protest videos. (Though of course it could be worse: they could be giving away used shoes.)

None of which is to say giving a poor child nice shoes for free isn’t nice. Of course it is.

But the real question all these stuff-for-free programmes need to answer is simple: if you calculated the dollar amount it costs you to make and distribute these shoes and just gave it to your beneficiaries as cash, how many of them would turn around and use that cash to buy those shoes?

The answer, of course, is “a vanishingly small number”. Which is just another way of saying that very poor people value other things they could buy with that money more than they value a nice pair of shoes. And yet, you’re not giving them that choice.You’re telling them, in effect:

I have decided which, out of all the millions of things that $20 might buy in this world, is the one thing that costs $20 that you’re going to have. You’re welcome.

Of course, TOMS only runs this programme in very poor countries. It wouldn’t make any sense to run it in richer countries, because in those places people have the incomes it takes to buy the shoes their kids need.

Wild thought, isn’t it? People having incomes reliable enough to buy the things they need. It’s a crazy pipe-dream, no doubt.

9 thoughts on “Toms’ one-for-one: because children this cute can’t be wrong”

  1. Thanks for highlighting this again. Curious to see what you’d think about their entry in the coffee market where they say for each bag of coffee they sell, they’ll provide a week’s worth of fresh water for a folks. (so… if you don’t buy the coffee, will they have no water?)

  2. Nowadays toms have tried to make the needed corrections on their strategy, the one for one model, like all social focused strategies, can be very helpful if done right and very harmful if done wrong. I guess you could say they have applied the Silicon Valley process of “fail fast”, the problem here is that they are failing on positively impacting people’s life and markets sustainability, which is not the same as failing on coding an APP… Good and interesting article!

  3. How much are they paying that kid to endorse their product and participate in their ad campaign? And how much are the other kids getting?

  4. Actually I don’t know what he got paid but give the money to his/her mum. She knows what the priorities are.

    One pair of shoes, say, buys three days of the staple for a family of six.

  5. Great little post. Thanks for bringing these issues into awareness. Now I just wish the hipsters buying Toms left and right would read this…
    This model of buying a pair of shoes knowing that a pair will be given to a child living in poverty reinforces the sense that people in developing nations are helpless. But the more dangerous factor is that the person who purchases these shoes gets to feel good about themselves for “helping”. There is a major psychological impact whereby the guilt of the purchaser is relieved: “I did my part”. Guilt relief is a huge factor that is rarely address. I blog about the intersection of psychology and cross-cultural work at

  6. In Germany, Apollo Optik (an optical store chain) has a similar campaign. When you buy a new pair of glasses, you can donate your old pair to be sent to some place in the developing world, to be given away for free I guess…

  7. I have to agree with ryankuja’s post – the power of guilt to compel people to “buy philanthropically” is strong indeed. The rise of similar campaigns through the non-profit world speaks to that guilt factory.

    Additionally and perhaps just as powerfully, I think such campaigns also speak to the decline of donation in the purest sense. Campaigns based purely on donation without a material return for donors are likely to have a hard time competing with those that can (e.g., adopt an animal programs at zoos – receive a plushy, certificate, and additional materials upon adoption, World Vision’s child sponsorship program – sponsor a child with your birthday and receive letters from the child in return!). There’s a level of status or bragging rights that comes with owning materials acquired through donation as a way of guilting others.
    One’s donation becomes more about what the donor gets in return as opposed to the good the donor’s money (or other contributions) is doing for others. Furthermore, it’s a continuation of the one-time donation challenge. “I’ve done my part! I bought a pair of Toms and now a child in need has a pair. I need not worry myself about this issue any further.” There is no intentional attempt to pull consumers into the issue in the long-term. The larger question I have is what effect this shift in “buying philanthropically” will ultimately have on organizations that cannot offer any material object in return for donations. Are we seeing the advent of “donation consumerism”?

  8. Whatever happened to Silly Friday and all the development whackerriness.
    I was in Nairobi yesterday and noticed this man at the gate of the hotel. He had a strange contraption consisting of a bicycle wheel, pedal, tyre tube and not obvious what the thing on top was. I asked the guard what is that thing for. Knife sharpener no less. Pedal drives the wheel which drives the grinder which sharpens the knife. 30 shillings a knife is his charge, seemingly. So what NGO is responsible for that contraption. None. Thought it out himself. So he goes on his rounds round Nairobi, probably the smaller, low-budget hotels, the more cost conscious traveller uses and he tries to make a living.

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