Culture At Large

What if your feet aren’t ready for their Toms close-up?

Craig Mattson

Last week marked the ninth birthday for Toms shoes. Since 2006, Blake Mycoskie’s “One for One” company has, for every first-world purchase of its shoes, given a pair to someone overseas in need. Now the company sells coffee for clean water, sunglasses for eye-care, tote bags for maternity kits. Given how much they talk about gift-giving, it’s no surprise Toms also has a One Day Without Shoes campaign, in which Instagram photos of bare feet, taken from May 5 to 21 and tagged #withoutshoes, will result in a pair of shoes for a child in need.

Part of the company’s continued longevity is tied to its close attention to critics. Complaints about Toms’ disruption of local manufacturers made Mycoskie shift some of his shoe production to countries that receive Toms’ donations. (Notably, the company built the first-ever shoe factory in Port-au-Prince.) Complaints about Mycoskie’s affiliations with evangelical aid organizations provoked Toms to deny exclusivism and identify as a “secular company.” I’d like to argue not with Toms’ secularist claims, but with its inclusive promise.

But first, some context. Toms’ birthday follows several decades of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives - since at least American Express’ Statue of Liberty campaign in 1983. Cause-related marketing leapt forward with Bono’s mid-2000s (Red) campaign, for which Converse, Microsoft, Hallmark and other giant corporations branded (Red) versions of their products, apportioning some profits to The Global Fund. Last month, Starbucks made the front cover of The Atlantic for funding employee college completion. Patagonia now tells buyers, on environmentalist grounds, not to buy their products unless they need them.

CSR is what all the cool companies do now.

My fear in Toms’ case is that its for-profit giving expands by excluding.

So, what’s Christian community to make of corporate social responsibility? On the consumer’s end, buying corporate goods may be about as meaningful as consuming food sacrificed to idols. To adapt Paul’s phrase, we are no worse off if we do not buy, and no better off if we do. In fact, I think we can give props to Toms for not exaggerating the power of the individual consumer. Perhaps the Day Without Shoes initiative is emblematic: people are not asked to buy anything, just take photos. There’s a smart, humble frankness about this campaign that keeps shoppers involved without making them integral. Unlike the Red campaign, which at times oversold what buyers could achieve (witness their 2006 manifesto), Toms doesn’t suggest that shoppers can save the world.

Neither can corporations, of course. Perhaps, though, we can give thanks that corporate generosity discloses unexpected relationships among various stakeholders - in Toms’ case, entrepreneurs, cobblers, retailers, shoppers and barefoot kids. This corporate activity wakes us up to our unexpected involvement and belonging to others in the world.

Still, my fear in Toms’ case is that its for-profit giving expands by excluding. The New Testament account of the church, in contrast, is both expansive and inclusive, as Jesus reminded his ethnocentric disciples when he spoke of other sheep and other folds. Consider the congenial exclusivity of Toms’ One Day Without Shoes. Feet-tweeting #withoutshoes is a super fun idea - and one that quietly discloses the company’s coolness quotient. Sure, I’ll admit a corn-flict of interest: my toes are too shabby for celebrity. But I’m also thinking what decades of wearing work boots can do to a blue-collar body’s feet. I’m thinking how fungus, ingrown-ness and blemishes aren’t likeable on Instagram. I’m thinking how hip a line your job has to toe so you can clock in barefoot.

So, yes, happy birthday to Toms for meeting the needs of shoeless people the world over. But as CSR matures, I can’t help hoping for more expansive giving and less exclusionary chic.

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