TOMS Shoes: doing good or earning good?

by TheIdealCynic on February 15, 2017 - 6:43pm

Throughout the past decade, the terms like “social enterprise” or “triple bottom line” have gained steam in the world of business buzz words. With the emergence of globalization and transparency, consumer expectations have risen to the point that companies must generate value beyond profit to remain competitive. Indeed, companies have begun to acknowledge the importance of maintaining a positive social or environmental footprint to keep consumers content. Less cynical proponents of the “social enterprise” would argue that entrepreneurs are motivated by the prospect of having a positive dent in the universe. Therefore, the question remains: is the trend of social business a corrupted – and genius – public relations scheme? Or have corporations truly departed from the dark side? 

The TOMS business model provides a compelling example of this questionable form of profit-based altruism. For those who are unfamiliar with the shoe brand, the company donates a pair of shoes to Africa for each shoe purchased by a consumer. While the concept may warm hearts, a deeper look at the implications of the model may implore readers to feel otherwise. While TOMS provides life changing  charitable handouts to children in Africa, they stimultaneously crush the existing – and brittle –African market by putting local shoe makers out of business. In a place with an economic backbone as fragile as Africa's, TOMS impact can be detrimental to local people. Although TOMS claims to be helping those in need, they – and perhaps unintentionally – apply a bandaid solution to an uncleaned, infected wound, failing to acknowledge the underlying systematic problems at play. 
Alternatively, deontologists might not be so quick to condemn TOMS for their work. Indeed, a deontological ethical lens would give TOMS an “uber five stars” for their socially minded approach. While the utilitirarian complains about the imperfect outcome, the deontologist acknowledges the moral fabric of TOMS shoes, in which donating to charity should be a universal business practice. A capitalist society in which all businesses donate to charity is indeed a beautiful, perhaps irrefutable notion. 
While the deontologist would praise TOMS for their noble intentions, in which helping people is an end within itself, members of utilitarian school of thought would certainly disagree. TOMS encourages consumers to purchase products on the basis that they can save a persons life – a deontologically sound notion in which changing people's lives for the better is an end within itslef. However, TOMS aggressive marketing strategy calls for speculation. Perhaps it is possible that the children TOMS helps are a means to an end – a means in the form of suffering individuals and an end in the form of excess profit and fiscal growth. The deontologist cannot justify this act of profit fuelled altruism, and utilitarianism is declared the winner – and TOMS the loser.