Back to school equals back to school shopping, a time to replenish school supplies and buy new clothes. We like the idea of recreating ourselves through the clothes we wear, especially when there are ethical options to match our increasingly conscious values. Organic cotton, fair trade and charitable companies are making more of a presence in the retail market, heralding a new era of guiltless consumerism. Many university students are being lulled into this consumer complacency, particularly with the Toms Shoes brand.
Blake Mycoskie, the young entrepreneur behind Toms Shoes, started the company after a visit to Argentina in 2006. He noticed that the children he met were barefoot, and this sparked an idea for the creation of a business that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. Mycoskie successfully pioneered the one- for-one movement that has swept through university campuses and developing nations alike. According to their website, Toms has partnered with humanitarian and health organizations all over the world to help distribute the shoes. Praises for Toms ring loud and clear, but are they premature?
Lately, people have been speaking out against Toms Shoes, accusing the company of harming local economies and livelihoods in the communities they have been donating to. When charities bring free clothes and shoes to places where these items are already sold, they out compete local markets and jeopardize job opportunities in the textile industry.
Another problem with the Toms brand is its conjecture-based business model. Little to no relevant research was conducted to determine the true needs of those living in recipient nations. The only information guiding the one-for- one movement is the ethnocentric assumptions of a young man pursuing the American dream. Albeit good intentioned, Toms does not ask the people they supposedly help what they actually want. If they were asked, they would request stable employment with equitable pay and a sense of dignity that can never be attained through charity.
Bringing the issue back home to the U of C corridors, one might question why so many students parade around shamelessly in such misdirected conspicuous consumption. The student body has taken Toms at face value rather than look beneath the surface of this so called philanthropic Goliath. We think our Toms purchases are beyond reproach. We wear our shoes with pride while patting ourselves on the back for helping people less fortunate than ourselves. Before we get too high on our paternalistic notions, we need to bring ourselves down to the reality of our own shortcomings.
Many of us do not want to admit that the predominant lifestyle in the global north comes at a cost to the global south. The abundance we experience in North America is secured by the subjugation of developing nations. Instead of abandoning our parasitic lifestyle, we sate our guilty conscience by convincing ourselves that we can solve the world’s problems with charitable capitalism. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, put it well when he said, “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” We cannot hide our ugly visage by donning ourselves with the veil of charity.
We must first help ourselves before we try to help others. Clearly we need to look in the mirror and start making some changes, not in the way we dress, but in the way we think.