When controversy broke on July 8 about TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie’s links to evangelical Christians, Jessica Stites and her colleagues at the Beverly Hills offices of the feminist quarterly Ms. were stunned. “We were really surprised and shocked because three-quarters of the Ms. staff wear TOMS shoes,” says the 28-year-old associate editor. “Focus on the Family has been on our radar for years, so we took the news personally.”
Headquartered in progressive Santa Monica, TOMS promises to give a free pair of its simple canvas slip-on shoes to “a child in need” for every pair purchased. Last September, TOMS gave away its millionth pair.
Mycoskie’s business model led Stites and her co-workers — and millions of others — to assume TOMS is a “progressive” company with a “strong social conscience.” Mycoskie seems to fit the bill, living on a sailboat in Los Angeles.
That carefully honed image suddenly came into question on June 30, when Mycoskie spoke as a headliner at a Focus on the Family event in Orange County.
"It seemed to come completely out of the blue,” Stites tells L.A. Weekly.
Last week, a Focus on the Family representative testified before the U.S. Senate against the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Now, critics are discussing not only Mycoskie’s friendships with antigay groups but also the dramatic profits he appears to reap while giving shoes to the poor.
Some critics say TOMS’ marketing campaign exploits the poor and manipulates the public.
“You feel shame when you look through their catalogs” filled with photos of poor children, says Tomas Pando, founder of Paez shoes in Argentina, which makes simple, slip-on cloth footwear similar to TOMS’, based on the alpargatas worn by Argentine workers. He says TOMS’ use of poverty images is “like stopping me on the street and saying, ‘I’m dying, give me a penny.’ ”
The shaggy-haired, neo-hippie-looking Mycoskie, whose title at TOMS is Chief Shoe Giver, is embraced by liberal hipsters in Los Angeles and New York City, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other progressive luminaries.
“A lot of socially liberal people were attracted to the shoe” and wear them “as a marker of progressive consumption,” says reporter Irin Carmon, who broke the Focus on the Family story on Jezebel.com.
In the days since Carmon’s scoop, anger has grown toward Mycoskie, who was said to be unavailable for comment.
Ms. created an online petition and denounced Mycoskie’s appearance with Focus on the Family. Some on Facebook called for a TOMS boycott. Some activists questioned Mycoskie’s position on gay rights.
“When he spoke with Focus on the Family,” says Cindi Love, executive director of Soulforce, “that’s a big red flag.” Soulforce is a gay-rights organization that nonviolently confronts antigay religious groups. Love, who wears TOMS shoes, was caught off-guard. Says Love, who is married to a woman, “It makes me wonder if he has deep issues about same-sex marriage that he hasn’t made public yet.”
Mycoskie has posted two apologies on his blog, writing that had he “known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak.” He adds, “TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all.”
Many are willing to accept his apologies, but critics find Mycoskie’s claimed ignorance unbelievable.
“I find it really hard to believe that anyone who’s as aware as he is, who starts a company like that, doesn’t know what Focus on the Family is about,” says Richard Flory, a sociology professor and director of research at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “It’s highly improbable.”
Christianity Today reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey points out that, in the past, Mycoskie’s evangelical activity “hasn’t been a problem for him. But now, it is.”
She revealed July 10 that Mycoskie attends Mosaic, an L.A. evangelical Christian church that’s considered more multicultural than mainstream evangelical institutions.
Mycoskie also spoke at an official TOMS event at Abilene Christian University, an evangelical college that refused to allow formation of a gay-straight alliance; and at an evangelical Christian conference hosted by influential pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch that has promoted the idea that gays and lesbians should be celibate or seek therapy.
A Mycoskie spokesperson said the TOMS founder is unavailable to discuss the controversy because he is traveling in Honduras, bringing to mind an old Warren Zevon song: “I’m hiding in Honduras. ... The shit has hit the fan.” That might describe the turn of events Mycoskie now faces.
Based on Mycoskie’s track record, USC’s Richard Flory says, “He might call himself a ‘Christ follower’ rather than an evangelist, which is the new term these days. But he’s clearly a fellow traveler in this world.”
Now critics have begun to focus on Mycoskie’s business model of telling consumers they are each personally helping shoeless children around the world.
TOMS manufactures its shoes in China, where, says Shui-Yan Tang, a USC professor of East Asian environmental policy and politics, it’s difficult to monitor working conditions. The company says it requires “that the factories operate under sound labor conditions [and] sign a code of conduct.”
But Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing?, which details his worldwide travels to factories where his personal wardrobe was made, says TOMS’ promotion of a code of conduct “doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve seen that statement on a countless number of company websites, and I’ve seen quite the opposite” when visiting companies’ outsourced manufacturing sites.
The website Alibaba.com, which publishes data to help manufacturers and buyers find suppliers in foreign countries, shows that a pair of slip-on canvas shoes actually costs between $3.50 and $5 to make.
TOMS sells that kind of shoe in the U.S. at retail prices ranging from $29 to $98; the “classic” sells for $44-$68. Then, for each shoe sold, TOMS gives away a pair of shoes costing $3.50 to $5 to produce.
Timmerman says, “People probably think they’re spending $40 on a pair of TOMS, and the poor kids are also getting $40 shoes, but that’s not what’s happening.”
When Timmerman visited Ethiopia, where TOMS manufactures its “giving shoes” — shoes that are donated to poor kids but not sold to consumers — he said some people complained to him about Mycoskie. “They were really offended and critical of TOMS,” Timmerman says. “They feel TOMS exploits Ethiopian poverty, that that’s their marketing tool.”
In addition, Paez shoe founder Pando, who’s based in Buenos Aires and makes a point of manufacturing his own slip-on shoes in Argentina and not outsourcing that work to China, says the children’s shoes TOMS gives away are the least expensive to make. “There’s less material, and it takes less time to make them,” Pando tells the Weekly in a phone interview from Argentina. (On TOMS’ website, kids’ shoes retail for $29 for “Tiny TOMS” and $38 for youth sizes.)
Pando doesn’t believe in using a social cause to sell a product, which TOMS clearly does. Pando promotes the quality of his shoes while giving fair-wage jobs to his employees. Paez footwear is produced in a “no-sweatshops” factory on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where the cost to manufacture Paez shoes is $8, Pando says; he sells them for $16 in his home country. “We support giving jobs and opportunities to the people of Argentina,” he says.
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Pando’s approach makes more sense to Timmerman, who has seen desperate poverty firsthand.
“You see the impact of how a job can change lives,” says Timmerman, “of how it can give a person dignity.”
He adds, “TOMS is a feel-good story, but you pull back the veil a little bit and you just go, ‘Oh, man, I really wish that’s not the case.’ ”
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.