When Jessica Alba Saves Africa With Shoes

So far, the absolute best thing about doing a PhD has been the people I get to hang out with. I am sure that normal service will be resumed that I will much prefer spending time reading in the New Year but right now the books that I am reading are about the history of the Irish economy, which is a boring chore that has to be overcome when one wants to develop a theology of wealth with the Irish economy in mind.

Or at least that is what my advisor is advising.

I have two office buddies and we get on tremendously well. They are both American, and they are very patient with my opinionated ways. Everyday is spent largely in silence with the occasional break for chat which might be about whether Andre Villas Boas is going to be sacked or might be about whether natural law exists or it might even be (nerd alert) to pray.

Yesterday we had a conversation about Toms Shoes. You might be unfamiliar with this particular phenomenon of “social entrepreneurship”. Perhaps you are so fortunate you don’t even know what “social entrepreneurship” means. Here’s their shtick, from Wikipedia:

When Toms sells a pair of shoes a pair of shoes is given to an impoverished child, and when Toms sells a pair of eyewear, part of the profit is used to save or restore the eyesight for people in developing countries.

In the interests of fairness, let’s see what they say on their own website:

Toms Mission

We were discussing Toms because of an interview on a podcast about their new “curated” social entrepreneur online shop. It is no accident that the shop is called The Marketplace.

The podcast interview begins at about the 39 minute mark and lasts for ten minutes. It is fascinating for what it doesn’t mention. Blake Mycoskie is feted as an entrepreneur. The entire conversation is premised on the idea that the company he has set up is flourishing. Many people have received shoes and spectacles. That means many shoes and spectacles must have been sold. There is some allowance for the serious critique that has been levied at Toms “One for One”™. There is a description of the new website where buzzwords from the high style world go to war with classic Christian terms. Hence he “curates” something that satisfies our “desire” to give gifts that are “thoughtful”.

Before we get to what isn’t mentioned, let me run through the problems with Toms. My dear friend dealt with this years ago, but you may not have seen that.

Toms shoes are crappy shoes for the wilderness. They may be fetching and fashionable in the shopping malls of Santa Barbara or the oil company offices of Aberdeen (on Casual Friday, natch) but they do not give sufficient support in the dusty outback around the edges of the Kalahari. They may not even protect against the basic diseases that afflict the shoeless. So in other words, if you lived in Africa, you wouldn’t wear them. So why are you happy to pass them on.

Toms gives a pair of shoes away in the developing world every time you buy a pair in the developed world. That seems like a good idea until you think for a moment. There is no marketplace anywhere in the world where one cannot buy shoes. Shoes are produced, distributed and consumed in every province and city and village in the world. So when you give a pair of shoes away in Angola, you are competing with utterly unfair bias against the other competitors in the pre-existing Angolan shoe market. There were tradespeople and traders, there were truck drivers and maybe even designers whose productive work is rendered meaningless by the thoughtless consumption of westerners.

And this is the interesting thing that goes undiscussed in the interview that I listened to. The founder of Toms (not just a corporation but a “movement”) talked about how this new endeavour, the Marketplace, was an extension of his philosophy to help support similar social entrepreneurship. What he doesn’t mention is that his company gets paid for “curating”.

Of course, we all know he gets paid. But he can never mention that in every transaction that occurs, he gets some money. Even though he could probably defend himself based on how the success of the Marketplace rests on the power of the “brand” he has cultivated, he and the interviewer never get into the ins and outs of how the company is growing and expanding, opening factories in Kenya and promising an overhauled production stream by 2015. If we were interviewing the boss of Boeing or Chrysler, we’d want to know about the figures and the profits and the money. But it is utterly undiscussed.

And I think this is the biggest of all the very many problems with Toms. It is the clearest example of the futility of good intentions. You buy Toms because you just want to help? But in no other quarter of your life is your desire sufficient. You just want to be a lawyer? Well pass the damned Bar exam! You just want to run the marathon? Well go train. You just want a cup of tea? Put the kettle on! In every other part of your life, the idea that good intentions is sufficient is called immaturity at best and very often, laziness. But when it comes to money, it’s the best we can do.

So Toms is an example of how we, as a society, are infantilized on the issue of economic justice. We dream of utopian scenarios like 6 year olds (“Why can’t we just print more money?!”) not because we desperately want to see things change but because we don’t. Toms sells shoes that lets us feel the glory of a world put to rights without having to put anything right. Or at least, that is what it advertises. Like most things that involve a carefully curated brand, it is false advertising. It is Slavoj Zizek’s fat-free chocolate and decaffeinated coffee transplanted to shoes and glasses, jewellery and headphones made out of wood from some rainforest somewhere.

My good intentions are not interesting. Blake Mycoskie’s desire to help people is insufficient. You can’t cure the problems of consumerism with more consumption. You aren’t undoing capitalism by baptising it with “a higher purpose”. Marx might say you are slowing its inevitable collapse and therefore prolonging its human-destroying excesses.

When charity seeks to redeem capitalism, it will be co-opted, commodified and become a co-conspirator in the pursuit of profit. Hence, when a capitalist manages to talk about his thriving company without mentioning profits, it may be because he is hiding something.

Your Correspondent, Charity is the opium of the privileged

12 Replies to “When Jessica Alba Saves Africa With Shoes”

  1. Thanks for your reflections on Toms shoes. It’s interesting that I too am somewhat uneasy with the profit Toms is making, but Blake was always upfront that this would be a for-profit business venture. I suppose if we really wanted to see what kind of profit they are making we could access their public records. You’re right though, they have some slick advertising that just hits us as consumers right where we are vulnerable. We like to be cool, and we like to think we are doing good by being cool. Here’s the issue though, I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as you think nor just about a feel-good factor. So, in grace hear me out, and hopefully we can have some kind of meaningful discussion. I’ve just got a few questions for you.

    Is it really the case that all over the world, in every village in every country all peoples have access to shoes? I suppose they might have access to it but then again they may have to make a thirty mile round trip to go and purchase a pair of shoes, that is, if they are fortunate enough to afford them. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite extensively and I distinctly remember being in Kolkata with children who simply had nothing and relied on the charity and hope offered by strangers. Kolkata is filled with markets and some of the top shoemakers in the world, yet they simply couldn’t pop around the shop to pick up a pair.

    Another question is simply this: is it really the case that Toms makes no difference? Or are you saying they are just insufficient in what they are trying to achieve? I get that we cannot redeem capitalism, but can we not try and attempt to overturn it’s continued destruction? Fact is, I need to buy shoes. I do, I’ve got a heavy in-step and I go through them like wildfire. I want to know where my shoes are made, by whom and whether or not all pieces of the process that have made the shiny piece of leather afix to my foot have been made ethically. I tell you, it’s near impossible to know for certain. Here’s the thing though. I need shoes, Toms shoes are alright but heck, i buy a pair and a child who would otherwise not have the opportunity to have shoes, gets a pair. It seems almost too simple, right? Maybe, just maybe that pair of shoes could make the world of difference. Maybe, just maybe charity from a stranger can make the world of difference, perhaps just for a few months but that difference can be immeasurable. Perhaps the first time a child has felt some kind of worth. I know, but it’s just a pair of shoes – I get it.

    Sorry, I’ve rambled on. The issue is complex for sure. Toms I think should be more accountable. Blake should be more transparent. And us? Well, I try and make a difference in even the small things. Shoes for some, can be a good start but I’d agree, it’s not the sole answer. Forgive the pun.

    By the way, say hi to Prof Swinton for me. I’m and Aberdonian born and bred and a grad of that fine uni.

    PS: Blake Mycoskie’s book, “Start Something That Matters”, is worth a read & gives a much broader glimpse into the story and heart behind Toms.

  2. Thanks for both comments. Donal, the quote at the end is from the novelist China Anchibe.

    Phil, I’ll try and answer your questions with my thesis! I think I could probably write a few more long winded posts in response. They are some critical questions. I suppose I want to draw out the tension (incoherence?) in this kind of capitalism. It fails to maximise share holder value, so it languishes in the face of contemporary capitalist values. It destroys market efficiency so it flounders on more classical models. It is insufficient as charity in itself (the shoes would be little use to you) and it leaves utterly untouched the question of systemic justice.

    I cannot contend that Profit, Capitalism or Self Interest are Wrong with a capital W. But I can suggest the strange dynamic at work with this and similar “higher purpose” capitalism’s is so confused that Christians should seek other ways to be in solidarity.

  3. Agh. So. Very. Guilty of being duped by socially responsible capitalism.

    Does Sevenly count too?

    I just really love t-shirts and shoes, and I love to feel good about buying them. Don’t tell, but between Mary Polly and me, we own three pairs of Toms. (hangs head) And they are worthless in Aberdeen I tell you.

  4. Glad I could stimulate such deep and blog worthy thoughts. If you work this into your thesis don’t forget to cite me! Something like “contra to popular belief expoused by my Devastatingly handsome friend and cultural mentor” will suffice:)

  5. Kevin, thanks for your response.

    I am glad to see that we are wrestling with this together. The role of systemic injustice/structural evil inherent in current forms of capitalism can be utterly debilitating. I totally agree with you, that I our call as Christians, is to offer something different. What that is in terms of capitalism and for profit business to be honest, I have yet to find answer.

    Jeffrey Sachs book ‘The End of Poverty’ has been most helpful for me as I try to painstakingly navigate my way through the myriad of complexities with regards extreme global poverty. As has ‘Griftopia’ by Matt Taibi. You’ll be far better read than I but even the World Bank’s recent document on poverty and shared prosperity is an interesting read. I have others, but I won’t overload this comment.

    I suppose at the end of the day, you and I may disagree with the role of ‘socially responsible capitalism’ but I don’t think I’m being duped. It’s not great, it’s not ideal but it’s what I am working with… aside from being involved directly in a very hands-on personal work I do for social/global justice and peace (but that’s an entirely different conversation). That though, is the rub. We would both agree that we cannot divorce consumption from our call to be bearers of peace and justice in a very real and tangible way to those less fortunate.

    Since I work at Regent College, Vancouver I suppose it would be only right that I direct you to a very interesting article out of our Marketplace Institute entitled: ‘What is a Christian vision for business?’ by Nathan McLellan.

    All the best with your studies!

  6. I really appreciate your focus on the idea regarding desire.I had thought of adopting the Toms’ shoes business model and giving a bottle of wine to somebody without one in Africa for every bottle sold, but have since changed my mind.

  7. That’s very interesting. I could do with out the cliched hyper-stylised video, but I do appreciate what they said in TGC piece:

    “the industry paradigm in the developing world is to pay as little as possible to workers and to get from them as much as possible. The gospel, however, opens our eyes to see our employees as people made in the image of God. We want to create programs that benefit them, helping them to provide for their families and contribute to their own communities.”

    I would like to suggest that entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged by something more sustainable than the profit motive though… so on that level I’d like to quibble with the right wing American Enterprise people.

  8. Thanks for the post Kevin – if you’re in Ireland over Christmas then I’d love to catch up for a pint and argue this some more.

    I’m typing this from the offices of the World Economic Forum, the bastion of ‘caring capitalism’ and taking time aside from preparations for Davos, the gathering of the global elite. As you can imagine being here raises many questions on how Christians should seek to engage and influence capitalism. Can we redeem the system from within or do our desires become warped?

    Firstly let me agree with you on the Toms Shoes example. But one example of bad practice no more discredits ‘social entrepreneurship’ than a failed relationship discredits the institution of marriage. The Marketplace, the heart of capitalism, has been the best system for meeting people’s needs and lifting billions out of extreme poverty. Until this recent age of capitalism, beginning with the Industrial Revolution and coupled with the Democratic and Religious Revolutions, the majority of people worked hard and were rewarded little with the majority of gains being captured by an extractive elite. In Great Britain this transformation can be symbolised by the works of George Stephenson the industrialist, William Wilberforce the political campaigner and George Whitfield the preacher. The inclusive nature of development in Britain was only assured because the system of capitalism was shaped by leaders of integrity who ensured that accountable institutions were created and values were central to policy formation.

    Unfortunately the democratic institutions and Christian values which underpinned this development have been steadily eroded over the past century and particularly in America the ideology of unfettered capitalism, driven by desires and not needs, has been glorified. The evangelical church which has emphasised the eternal over the temporal and the individual over the communal and turned capitalism from a valuable economic model into a quasi-religious ideology has often been culpable.

    I believe the question the church should be asking is ‘how do we place Christian values at the centre of human development?’ and ‘how can we shape economic models to benefit society and be good stewards of natural resources?’. While social entrepreneurship is an overused and misused term, in its truest form it has much to offer. The term should refer to a business which addresses a social issue whereby profits generated are sown back into societal transformation (such as Third Space). However it can often include anything from a non-profit with an innovative model (and possibly cost-recovery) to a for-profit business which does some social stuff on the side (such as Toms). Christians working in all spheres of society need to consider what values our work is propagating and how we can use our influence and resources ‘to bring life to the full’.

    Sorry, this is a hurried post written at the end of a long day but hopefully it makes sense. Some great resources out there include http://marketplace.regent-college.edu/about-us, http://www.transformingbusiness.net , http://bamthinktank.org/

  9. Thanks Reuben. I am back in Dublin over Christmas. I’d love to go for a pint.

    I understand the broad historical story you are telling (I am part of the Transforming Business project in Cambridge) but I fear it lacks an appropriate suspicion.

    Maybe an example would help?

    If we even take a challenge such as “how do we place Christian values at the centre of human development?”, I would need to know what is meant by ‘Christian values’ and ‘human development’. These are contested terms. They serve as places around which you want to build an argument but I suspect they won’t give you foundations. My fear is that both of those concepts, that we hear discussed so often we barely notice to ask what they mean, will either fall away into relativism or narrow down into secessionist dogmatism.

    I hope that makes sense…

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