3-9 January 2014 #688

The shoe on the other foot

Toms bypasses Nepal in the production of its new boot and engages with Nepalis as recipients of charity
Sangita Shresthova in LOS ANGELES

It all began on Facebook a few months ago, when several Nepali friends linked to a new product in their newsfeed: the new Nepal Boots created by Toms Shoes.

The shoes were beautiful, woollen, and furry; their colours reminding me of Tij and Tihar. The Toms website explained that the boots were ‘inspired by the beautiful fabrics and textures of Nepal’.

Nepal Boots was a part of Toms ‘giving the gift of sight’ initiative and its One for One program through which the company donates a pair of shoes for every pair it sells. A local store had the boots in stock and within minutes I received a confirmation email thanking me for my Nepal Boots purchase.

Based in California and founded in 2006, Toms Shoes exemplifies a trend where companies donate or support philanthropic projects as an integral part of their for-profit activities. While such efforts are laudable, the effectiveness of these humanitarian interventions are questionable.

Development, foreign aid, and poverty alleviation are complex issues entangled in many local and global realities. Yet, these socially conscious companies would like to have us believe that purchasing a product can, and indeed does, help solve enduring issues of inequality and poverty.

As I waited for my Toms Shoes delivery, nagging questions crept in, jeopardising a pleasurable consumption moment. Surely, donating a product to ‘someone in need’ must come with its own disruptiveness? Doesn’t the local shoe merchant suffer if the shoe market is flooded with imported donated shoes? And how does purchasing a pair of Toms’ Nepal Boots that are ‘Made in China’ even begin to help support sustainable entrepreneurship in Nepal?

I sent Toms a Facebook message politely asking for more information about its Nepal specific programs: ‘You are clearly benefiting by branding your shoes with the Nepal name and through this associating them with this country’s resplendent mountains and Himalayan cultures. Why not complete the circle and give back to Nepal directly? Some Nepali youth would love to do your shoes proud.’ Back came a polite, but unsigned, reply. Toms assured me that it ‘welcomed my feedback’ before admitting it didn’t ‘have a specific answer right now’. It went on to explain that: ‘While the inspiration for our Nepal Boots was found on a Giving Trip in Nepal’ the company was ‘not currently set up with a giving partner to give shoes there’.

But, it comforted me, Toms does ‘give the gift of sight’ in the country through Seva Nepal. As proof, it included a link to a short film about a Toms supported eye clinic in Khandbari. Finally, it encouraged me to suggest new ‘giving partners’ in Nepal, but warned me that it wasn’t accepting applications at this time.

Toms is doing more for social good than most shoe companies, but its response raised some issues in the change model it supports. The boots are named after Nepal and the company gains from the country’s cultural imagery and cache. The shoes are made in China and sold in the United States. Some of the profits from these and other sales are then used to support eye surgeries and shoe donations in countries like Nepal.

At first glance, it would appear that everyone benefits. Americans get to buy shoes that make them feel good. The Chinese efficiently produce the shoes in their factories. And, Nepalis get to receive ‘gifts’ bequeathed on them through the Toms giving apparatus. But Toms bypasses Nepal in the production process and engages with Nepalis only as recipients of charity, missing an opportunity to support sustainable growth in the country through investment in local talent and manufacturing infrastructure.

The success of companies like Toms suggests that responsible consumption is a growing trend. Consumers want to buy products that do more than just serve their needs. They want to feel that they are, in a small way, helping make the world a better place, but socially conscious entrepreneurs should evaluate their change models carefully.

In November 2013, Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie indicated he is giving these issues more thought. In an interview with Huffington Post, he acknowledged that Toms needs to ‘create jobs’ if it is ‘serious about poverty alleviation’. Mycoskie also promised that one third of Toms Giving Shoes would be produced in the countries where they are donated by the end of 2015.

So, maybe one day Nepalis may actually help design and produce the Toms Boots that already carries their name? Maybe they can buy and wear the boots too? Gazing west to an imaginary point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Himalaya, I can almost convince myself that my Nepal Boots will one day be made by someone in Nepal.

Sangita Shresthova is is a Czech-Nepali media scholar focusing on the intersection between popular culture, new media, politics, and globalisation.
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