There is something about spring. Charitable organizations seem to assume that the sunshine pumping vitamin D into our bodies makes us content to throw the remnants of our savings at them, or at least post on our timelines about why everyone else should. While many anonymous folk representing charities, responsible corporations, and NGOs may be flooding our inboxes this season, peers also engage in this harassment to support various causes, especially through social networking and campus event promotion.
Throughout the semester, I have found myself explaining carefully why I choose not to support various wildfire initiatives, such as Kony 2012. Recently, I have found myself rolling my eyes at these posters around campus.
Call me Scrooge or the hipster of philanthropy, but I refuse to jump on bandwagon causes that I’m either ill or very harshly well informed of. Just as any other college student, I’m lacking in funds and free time, and prefer to spend both on something that matters (like purchasing new screens for my iPhone every month).
While I hate to pick on a company with such a ruggedly attractive founder, it’s difficult not to get up in arms over TOMS shoes’ painfully wrong model of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Don’t get me wrong; I do believe TOMS began with good intentions. There are a lot of people in the world who live without shoes and that really bites. Turning this issue into a very strange, but clever marketing ploy, however, is ridiculous.
The idea of going barefoot so others don’t have to makes no sense to begin with. It is simply a tactic designed to make consumers feel good about getting their feet dirty so they may reward themselves with a new pair of TOMS. Further, and disappointingly so, it deepens the misconception of the White Man’s Burden as people parade around like shoeless knights to help Africa: that one poor, homogenous, hopeless country.*
Congratulations, TOMS, I couldn’t think of better aid dumping promotion myself. Aid dumping, which has just begun to receive media and even World Bank criticism, unintentionally complicates the original problem for several reasons. First of all, goods donated are not necessarily goods needed. For example, on the whole, Africa is not lacking shoes. It is, in some areas, lacking infrastructure for rural residents to reach shoe markets, which is a different matter. Secondly, receivers of aid may become both reliant upon it and unable to sell local competitive goods of similar quality as demand drops, causing local entrepreneurs, the people whom are striving to help underdeveloped economies succeed most, to fail. The sheer logistics of sorting and distributing assortments of useless goods can put unnecessary strain on receiving communities as well.
CSR — real or phony — may be trendy, and marketing it has definitely proven to pump up profits. But, as companies like GAP know, there’s only so long you can fool the consumer. I can only hope TOMS will soon actually look towards local needs and knowledge, and a long-term, recipient based business strategy. In the mean time, please, think twice before you invite me to the next “Saving the World One Shoe at a Time” rally.