“In 2006, American traveler Blake Mycoskie befriended children in a village in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet.” That’s how TOMS—the footwear company that donates a pair of its shoes for every pair sold—tells its origin story. Shoeless children, however, is not what a group of researchers found when they went to El Salvador to assess the impact of TOMS on the local economy.
An economic question has long threatened to belie the altruism of TOMS’ “One for One” giving policy: Does the company’s free footwear undercut local shoe sellers? A recent paper (PDF), published in the Journal of Development Effectiveness, attempted to answer this question by carrying out a randomized trial involving 979 Salvadoran households. The researchers show that “estimations indicate shoe purchases to be slightly lower among households receiving the donated shoes.”
A 2008 study estimated that clothing donations to African countries caused employment in the local textile industry to drop by half. This initial data on TOMS suggests that’s not happening with shoes.
What researchers did find, however, is that virtually no child who received TOMS shoes would have otherwise gone barefoot. “Nearly every child owns a pair of shoes or sandals, and in our sample 88% of children owned two or more pairs of shoes,” they write. “Indeed, it appeared that most of the families, even the very poor ones, could afford a pair of shoes or sandals. Only two children from age six to 12 in our study out of the 1,492 studied had no shoes at all at baseline.”
Nearly all of the children they found walking around without shoes were doing so “because they preferred to walk barefoot.”
That said, the kids who got them seemed to love their TOMS. They wore them over four days a week on average during the four-month survey period. Kids mostly used their free footwear to play outside or just kick around the house.
The kids may have enjoyed them, but many of the mothers interviewed said the TOMS “would wear out very quickly due to the environment and heavy use by the children.” (And some boys said they didn’t like TOMS because they looked like “pregnant women shoes”.)
The photo above is by Flickr user Kate Ter Harr and used under a Creative Commons license. The photo has been cropped.