October 13, 2013

Tom Foolery: Is Tom’s Move to Haiti Just Lip Service?

The one-for-one shoe company Tom’s is making a brand saving attempt by beginning to manufacture shoes in the areas where free shoes are distributed.

The company we all love to hate will begin making shoes in Haiti beginning in 2014.

Haitian factories won’t be producing the fancy shoes that find their way into department stores and boutiques across the developed world; not the shiny ones you see on little feet taking their first steps or those seen on a cleverly clad wedding party; no, not any of those.

Instead, Tom’s will begin to manufacture shoes that are distributed in places like Haiti. (This might not matter, except the total number of shoes made for the marketplace is much greater than the total number of shoes made for distribution in Haiti.  So—math aside—that just means not a ton of jobs for Haitians.)

Recap: One-for-one models aren’t really helping if the root causes of poverty aren’t addressed. They really aren’t helping if the production of things is perpetuating poverty. If people need shoes forever, just giving away shoes may not be a catalyst for, well, anything.

So now Tom’s will still sell overpriced shoes in one market with the stated purpose of giving away a shoe of lesser quality in other markets. This isn’t new.  But now they will diversify where they make some products.

Enter: new idea.

It might look like this:

Manufacture somewhere like Haiti.Create maybe 100 jobs. Pay a “living wage.”  Still sell shoes with a super high profit margin. Save brand. Etcetera.

Commence endless adoration, unquestioning loyalty and first world glee. Slip on those $55 pieces of canvas perfection and exhale knowing your fashionably charitable identity isn’t at risk.

I wish it were that simple. (Trust me I love a good pair of comfy shoes that don’t make me look like a soccer mom.)

There are 8 million things to say about why this isn’t the bravest, most bold move a for-profit company can make, but I don’t think I have your attention for 8 million reasons.

This is what I would say at a cocktail party amidst people I know nothing about:

“Haiti has always been a place where the United States has sought a strategic relationship with for the purpose of production, the focus being set squarely on agriculture and manufacturing. Creating an opportunity for Haitians to make products for an American company is little more than the status quo.”

This is what I would say if I was drinking whiskey with a good friend who was used to my raging against injustice:

“Haiti has been purposefully impoverished for what seems like (or actually is) centuries for the want of strategic advantage or racism or some kind of human yuckyness I don’t have words for. The United States has leveraged its power to create manufacturing centers in the Western hemisphere, and Haiti has always been one of them. An American company making shoes in Haiti is what American companies do. They just don’t always send out a press release.”

The fact that Tom’s has chosen Haiti—aside from the great PR—may be a move based on pure goodwill or it may be a move based on the strategic advantage.

The company states they will pay a “living wage” but they do not tell us what this means. They do not address the fact that Haitians have been waging a battle for an increase in the minimum wage since the early 90’s. A battle that has resulted in lost lives, debilitating setbacks and the ouster of a democratically elected president.


Minimum wage is not a living wage and that is kind of a big thing. I want to know why working for Tom’s would be good. Why it would be better? Why it would matter?

A good job in Haiti might mean:

Being paid more than minimum wage.

Being paid by the hour and not by how many pieces an employee produces in an hour.

Being allowed to use the restroom.

Being allowed to bring your own lunch.

(Seriously, it is 2013 and that is not made up stuff.)

A good company operating in Haiti might:

Provide health care.

Provide child care.

Pay employment taxes.

Hire Haitians for upper level positions.

Provide on the job training.

(Seriously, it is 2013 and getting companies to do this is nearly impossible.)

Just making stuff and giving stuff away isn’t doing anything.

I hope Tom’s move into Haiti means something good for Haiti. I hope it means good jobs. I hope it means opportunities for Haitians to grow past entry level positions. I hope it means we aren’t just telling ourselves we are “saving Haiti” or somewhere else forever.

The best thing we can do for the rest of the world isn’t just allowing people to make our shoes.  That isn’t a huge idea. It is something much more. Something bigger. I don’t know what Tom’s will do in Haiti, but I do know it shouldn’t be more of the same; and if they have a plan to be better than the companies that came before them, they should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Think I’m crazy? Check out this film.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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