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:
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