Charity v. Justice in the Buy-One-Get-One TOMs era
Something about me: I have a strong distrust of flashy campaigns for mission organizations. Back when I was in high school, our church youth group did the 30 Hour Famine by World Vision. Great idea, flashy logos, pre-packaged info packets for the youth minister. I mentioned it to my dad and he researched and saw that only a portion of every dollar raised actually gets to the hungry children. While the organization has bettered the percentages since then, it was a wake-up call that flashy logos and marketing costs money, and my donations were paying for it rather than going to hungry third-world children. I call it glamissional efforts “glam-missional” whereby the flash of the giving is bigger than the actual help…and trendier too.
That was 13 years ago. Today, enter TOMs shoes. All the rage with my youth is TOMs shoes: you buy a pair of hipster-savvy shoes and another pair is given to needy third-world children. It’s called BOGO giving: Buy One Get One. In other words, if you buy something for yourself, it helps other people.
They do great works, donating millions of shoes and hiring locals to distribute the shoes (this will be important later). Shoes may not seem like much to some, but saving youth especially from soil-borne illnesses and infections. Clearly, TOMs shoes is doing great works and changing lives across the globe.
I don’t have a problem with the successes or with the people working at TOMs.
However, the problem I have with a setup like TOMs shoes is what Zizek calls cultural capitalism, defined as “how we may do good things within the structures of a bad system, while in fact contributing to it.” In other words, it’s essentially “personal redemption for being a consumer” that makes buying things feel better. (h/t tumbledore)
In my own congregation in a rural town, we did a book study on Julie Clawson’s Everyday Justice book. It talked about the plight of coffee farmers who are severely underpaid for their crops, cocoa beans picked by slave children, and sweatshops that make clothes. Clawson challenged us that every time we buy one of those unethically grown-or-made products, we support this system of injustice. I challenged the 12-person study group to find fair trade coffee, chocolate, clothes in our town’s stores. They found some coffee (at Wal-Mart, oddly enough), but mostly they could find products that gave 1-5% to a particular charity, ie. Chocolate that gave 1% back to the Rain Forest. That sounds like a good buy. But according to Clawson (and Admiral Ackbar)…it’s a trap :
The most frustrating thing is when I find an item for sale…which will donate 1 percent of its profits to some charity cause. This helps the buyers feel good about their purchase but distracts from the underlying justice issue. What we need instead is for public awareness of these issues to increase and for the demand for clothing made ethically (in all aspects) to increase. (Everyday Justice [Kindle location 1347])
TOMs shoes may give to the needy and help people in very real ways (hookworm is horrifying), but there are difficulties. While manifold, I see two ones as most important: effectiveness and creating dependency:
- Zac Mason crunches the numbers (charitably towards TOMs) and sees that TOMs shoes are not that great a deal when it comes to effectiveness of the dollar when compared to other needs:
For $1,969 you could give 72 kids in Ethiopia a pair of shoes which will inevitably rip and degrade into rags within a few years – or you could send your money to a Peace Corps Volunteer or Oxfam or Water Aid to build one row of concrete latrines at a school which should last for decades. For the price of sending TOMS Shoes to a school of 1,000 kids for 2 years, you could build 13 latrines at 13 schools to benefit the health of tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand kids over the course of 25 years.
Giving a child in Ethiopia a pair of shoes might very well be a moral thing to do, but when a development agency or NGO is pursuing some sort of public health agenda they have to do these kinds of calculations to determine which of many policy options available to them are worth the expenditure of finite financial resources. If you are going to donate your money to some sort of humanitarian cause, you should do the same kind of math to determine which charity you feel best deserves your money.
- Actions like these, while commendable, create dependency not independence. Like women suckled to Nestle’s formula, any free aid eliminates or reduces demand for the product given. With the exception of Ethiopia (per a more-than-cursory web search), TOMs does not buy their shoes from local vendors. So they are made, assembled, and shipped from overseas…and only distributed by “local partners.” I wonder what the shoe vendors in those countries feel about having free shoes everywhere? It is an example of creating dependency on free shoes rather than empowering local merchants.
All that said, it’s not like the competition is much better. The alternatives are much more expensive (Sawas are twice as expensive as TOMs and twice as less-trendy, but they are locally-made shoes).
The dilemma with TOMs shoes is an example of the conflict between charity and justice. TOMs shoes is a charity, digging wells and latrines is justice. Charity takes care of a person’s immediate needs and required repeated actions. Justice takes care of long-term systemic problems and is slow-moving but helps more people. Both are required actions as part of Jesus’ command to “Love Thy Neighbor” but both require reflection on the fruits of such efforts.
However, there are other organizations to support. Instead of charity feeding for a day, it is closer to justice changing the structures of hunger.
- Heifer Project International, while in the same boat as World Vision for only a portion of proceeds go to the needy, teaches independence not dependence by showing farmers how to plant, people how to care for livestock, and so on.
- Micro-loan distributors (like kiva.org) get money directly to the people who need it not for a handout but to start their own business or empowerment effort. Such efforts create, again, independency not dependency.
- Organizations where 100% of your donation goes to the needy. If you are United Methodist, donating to an Advance cause (like was advertised for Japan and Haiti recently) results in 100% of the gift reaching the needy.
So, am I gonna stop my youth from wearing Tom shoes or lecture them? Not at all, I’m no hater and I want to encourage my youth to reach out to others. But I will (and do) talk to them about the difference between a charity gift that makes you feel better, and a justice gift that honors both the recipient and yourself and changes the reason “why” people are shoeless or hungry.
And it may not be flashy.
But that’s okay.
In the words of Zac Mason (quoted above):
I’m not saying that you should not give to charity – all I’m saying is that before you give whimsically to just any humanitarian-sounding cause, first take into consideration that it is possible that your unconditional generosity might just distort incentives to such a perverse extreme that any good that they might have achieve in the short run might be negated by the greater harm that they might cause in the long run.
Get informed about the effects of Buy-One-Get-One efforts. Ask yourself the real motivations you have behind the purchase. And find out from people on the ground as to the effects of a charity, not just the # of people helped.