Free two shoes
CAPITALISM has clocked the ethical consumer. Shoe brands like TOMS and Skechers tease in customers by matching purchases with a donation of a pair of shoes to a child in need. So far, TOMS has handed out 60m pairs of shoes, letting fashion-conscious consumers feel good about boosting children’s health, access to education and confidence. But evidence suggests that shoppers’ warm glow is unjustified.
Handing out aid in kind gives plenty to worry about. It could suck life from local markets, and foster a culture of aid-dependency. Handing out goods rather than cash runs the risk of spending money on things people neither need nor want. To find out if its intervention had worked, TOMS, to its credit, asked a group of academics to investigate and gave them assurances that they could publish whatever they liked. In late 2012 they randomly picked which of 1,578 children across 18 rural communities in El Salvador would receive pairs of TOMS’ black-canvas, rubber-soled shoes. By comparing the places and children who received the shoes with ones that did not, they could work out how much these boots really gave back.
The first of two studies found that TOMS was not wrecking local markets. On average, for every 20 pairs of shoes donated, people bought just one fewer pair locally—a statistically insignificant effect. The second study also found that the children liked the shoes. Some boys complained they were for “pregnant women” and some mothers griped that they didn’t have laces. But more than 90% of the children wore them.
Unfortunately, the academics failed to find much other good news. They found handing out the free shoes had no effect on overall shoelessness, shoe ownership (older shoes were presumably thrown away), general health, foot health or self-esteem. “We thought we might find at least something,” laments Bruce Wydick, one of the academics. “They were a welcome gift to the children…but they were not transformative.”
More worrying, whereas 66% of the children who were not given the shoes agreed that “others should provide for the needs of my family”, among those who were given the shoes the proportion rose to 79%. “It’s easier to stomach aid-dependency when it comes with tangible impacts,” says Mr Wydick.
The findings have prompted TOMS to change its strategy. It is adopting approaches more likely to have a big impact, such as matching purchases of sunglasses with free sight-correction. Increasingly it gives shoes as rewards for children who join community-building projects. Even so, its “one for one” shoe offering faces a basic problem: it is aimed at children who want shoes, but are too poor to buy them. For children that poor, other things would help more. As Mr Wydick notes: “You can’t eat shoes.”