08/29/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

TOMS Will Not Sustain You

Sustainability is the hot, new thing in international development circles. Every organization, multilateral, non-profit, and NGO loves this latest trend as a programmatic focus. I understand its importance; it signifies a commitment to long-term investment and growth and justifies funding. So, why do some companies just toss that commitment aside?

I was sitting on the couch in my DC apartment, watching Aladdin with my roommates, when a Skechers commercial came on extolling the charitable virtues of their line of BOBS shoes. Let me make it clear, they are strikingly similar to the ubiquitous TOMS in more ways than are countable. Now, as someone who is spoiled by DVR's fast-forwarding capabilities, I get annoyed with commercials to begin with. But, while waiting for Aladdin to resume after the break, I couldn't shake the thought of how much the TOMS-esque, 'One for One' international philanthropy and business model bothers me.

What happens when these kids inevitably outgrow or wear through a pair of shoes? Who gives them access to another pair? If you watch the video of their mission statement, TOMS attempts to keep track of the kids the company provides with shoes. But, what is the feasibility of tracking? Their model elicits countless questions of whether these kids will continually have the ability to obtain shoes. If these kids live in incredibly rural areas, doesn't it follow that accessing TOMS' distribution partners would be difficult?

TOMS' personal model notwithstanding, let's go back to the 'One for One' model. The philanthropy is admirable; the execution is poor. I have thought this for some time now, but seeing the ad for BOBS brought these thoughts back with full force. This business model does not work. It lacks sustainability and longevity. It does not do developing nations any long term good. So, why is it being copied? Because it's sexy. The profits are high, the shoes are on trend, the publicity is phenomenal. An entrepreneur would be stupid to not capitalize on this kind of philanthropy, right? But, it's unscrupulous. Make shoes cheaply (with little transparency regarding labor conditions), donate a portion of said cheaply made shoes, ensure that your business has a sky-high profit margin because you are able to charge $44 (at the bare minimum) for a pair of cloth shoes. It is a business, after all. But, its unsavory operations are masked under the guise of philanthropy.

Wouldn't it be a much smarter, more sustainable development model to create infrastructure in the countries where these children live? These companies have the resources and capacity to really make a difference. They have the ability to create valuable employment for whole communities by building factories to make the shoes children so desperately need in order to avoid disease and loss of access to schooling. Factories that are built using local materials and resources, and employ the local community. Refocusing their efforts on building and empowering local economies as part of their philanthropy would prove to be a definite step in the direction of sustainable international development practices. It'd cultivate long-term investment. And, it has the potential to revamp the 'One for One' business model for the better.