Desiree Fernandez sat in her family youth and community science class her freshman year at UF in 2008. She noticed the girl sitting next to her was barefoot.
“What’s up with the no shoes?” she asked her classmate.
Casey Francis, now a good friend, told her that she was taking part in the “One Day Without Shoes” event put on by TOMS shoes to promote shoeless awareness.
It inspired Fernandez to take off her shoes too.
“Turlington was the worst,” Fernandez said. The heavy-trafficked plaza in the heart of the university had bumps and thick stones that gave her feet some trouble.
“I was like, ‘holy crap,’” she said. “Kids have to walk around all day like this in other countries where the ground is much worse.”
A quick look around campus at the feet of Gainesville’s 20-somethings and it’s apparent that the cause has spread like wildfire in just a few short years.
Besides being the cool, low-key yet colorful canvas fashion statements (some come in vegan), TOMS, which stands for “tomorrow,” operates on the business model “One for One.”
The premise is simple. For every pair of TOMS shoes bought, the company will send a pair to kids in need all over the world.
TOMS’ initial goal was to give out 10,000 pairs of shoes. As of September of 2010, the company has reached over one million pairs.
According to a Business Week article published in 2009, TOMS has an estimated $4.6 million in revenue, while still operating under the one-for-one model.
The company’s web page states, “the TOMS mission transforms our customers into benefactors, which allows us to grow a truly sustainable business rather than depending on fundraising for support.”
Gifthorse, a small boutique in Gainesville owned by Roberto Evans, sells sweatshop-free clothes and products, including TOMS. They have the widest selection of different TOMS styles in Gainesville.
Evans first became passionate about sweatshop-free products upon visiting his homeland in Honduras.
“We drove past the sweatshops and it became too real. I knew then I couldn’t be a part of a cycle that kept my countrymen in poverty with unfair living situations while I profited from their exploited labor,” Evans said. “I made the stance that my store would not carry anything made under these poor working conditions.”
Evans got involved with TOMS a few years ago, before they garnered so much attention.
“I liked them for their simple yet cool design,” he said. “I wanted a pair and I thought others would too. Then I found out about their mission, and then I really liked them.”
Launa Clough, a UF student and a leader of Young Life, a Christian outreach organization, was also drawn to buy TOMS.
“I think it’s a great way to show other people that you care about the world,” she said. “Even as college students, you can affect someone else’s life in a positive way.”
After just returning from a mission trip in Peru, she sees the starker picture of a village filled with children and no shoes.
“We’d be working in these harsh conditions with nails and staples everywhere, and all these kids were just running around without shoes,” she said. “We just take it for granted because we’ve always had shoes.”
David Cromer, another Young Life leader, rocks his black TOMS with laces and the works. He paid the higher price of $70 for them, but still doesn’t mind. On average, a pair of TOMS costs about $55.
“I just hope a cool little kid somewhere in Uganda or something is wearing these shoes because of me,” he said.
While it seems everybody is hopping on the bandwagon to support these philanthropic products, a lack of information may be widespread.
According to information from the TOMS website, the company manufactures its shoes in Argentina, China and Ethiopia. They are also not a part of the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that specializes in products and apparel sold to the US and Canada. Though “sweatshop-free” has no agreed-upon definition, transparency is a good start. TOMS is vague and unspecific when defining their own standards.
From a wider anthropological standpoint, some valid questions and concerns emerge about companies like TOMS.
UF professor Sarah Page-Chan is a doctoral candidate in the field of cultural anthropology. Her dissertation research focuses on human rights in Jamaica.
“I have to tell you that I am a bit wary of corporations-for-good like TOMS,” she said. “They do not tell us much about how they select the communities that receive the donated shoes, and to a certain extent, this almost does not matter.”
Chan calls attention to “cultural capitalism” and the reasons people feel better when they buy things like TOMS.
“This is especially attractive to youthful consumers like college students who might view such a purchase as a way to buy into something bigger than themselves,” she said. “Possessing such a product can be a way to seem more socially conscious, and as such, is a kind of fashion statement about one’s personal (if consumerist) ethics.”
Chan went as far as questioning the value and necessity of shoes.
“Many cultures around the world prefer going barefoot for various activities. In many cases, it is a choice, and not a lack of footwear that causes them to go barefoot,” she said.
In spite of the differing theories regarding the popularity of TOMS, the buzz remains strong about the $55 slip-on.
“I’m pretty sure people buy much more expensive things than TOMS for themselves, and at least TOMS is still trying to do good for the world, regardless of whether or not they’re making a profit,” Clough said.
If it boils down to a choice between buying shoes that give back and buying shoes that only the consumer can enjoy, the appeal of TOMS is evident. Their methods are innovative and admirable, but far from perfect. If TOMS joined the Workers Rights Consortium and revealed more information about where and how their shoes are produced, they’d be putting the right foot forward.