My (feet’s) Ethical Quandary: To Wear Toms Or To Not Wear Toms?

Is it better to buy an American brand pair of shoes likely manufactured in a sweatshop in another country or buy a pair of shoes manufactured in another country (in a sweatshop?) from an American company that donates a pair for every pair purchased…but potentially hurts the economies of the countries that receive the donated shoes?

My feet are picky customers. It is not easy to please the high-arched things nor the knees they are attached to. Moreover, because I like to be conscious of where my footwear and apparel is manufactured, I generally avoid places like H&M and Forever 21 which offer cute, inexpensive clothing at deplorable human and environmental costs. Shoes too. In addition to these limitations, I avoid flats and heels because I need a little more comfort than those styles offer and I also have strong feminist feelings about the unhealthiness of high heels. This makes it very difficult to find shoes that go with dresses, skirts, and slacks, and brings me to what is on my mind: Toms Shoes.

When Toms shoes first came out and every third female-bodied* person my age was sporting the simple canvas shoes, I found them very attractive. I was rather deterred by the cost but the “One For One” tagline engaged my curiosity. The company’s philanthropic mission made me think the cost might be permissible if I was also sorta donating a pair of shoes. Even then, however, I was a bit uncomfortable with the mission and did considerable Google-searching to further learn where these simple shoes were made and where the donated pairs were going. Eventually, because I had won an Amazon gift card, I purchased two pairs. The shoes were really comfortable and remain the most comfortable Emily-Is-Pretending-She-Has-Formal-Footwear shoes I have ever worn. I wore my two pairs to pieces over the course of a year and a half. After wearing a purple pair of Adidas fake-sporty shoes every day for a couple of months, I realize it is time to maybe buy a neutral pair of shoes and Toms came to mind. Unfortunately, now I know that Toms hurts countries its shoes go to by undermining shoe-making there I am not so keen on them.  I was also ticked when I saw its offensive “tribal” Toms. That’s cultural appropriation. Not okay. Strike 2. I am also uncomfortable with the idea of a [white] American loudly “helping” children in other countries. Seems like white savior stuff. International philanthropy is often a form of imperialism, whether intended or not.

I imagine Toms does a lot of good and many of the children who receive their new shoes are grateful and maybe even amused. But I don’t know if that justifies the purchase. In a globalized world, what kind of footwear should people buy if they want peace of mind? Is it possible to buy a pair of shoes that is not part of systems of social inequality? Is it possible to buy an affordable pair of shoes that offer the buyer peace of mind?

Do I buy a pair of Toms or not buy a pair of shoes at all unless it is made in the United States with fair trade and organic materials?

I did not intend to write a long post about what should be a very simple decision to buy shoes. How remarkable is it that we live in a world in which the cheapest pairs of shoes are produced thousands of miles away. Shouldn’t the cheapest shoes be manufactured locally? Prices should include external costs like transportation and environmental stewardship. What would an (affordable) locally manufactured, vegan shoe look like?

I am not sure what I am going to do about the shoes. I don’t know if there are any I can buy with any peace of mind. Does anyone have any recommendations? What is the most ethical thing to do?

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*I’m unsure what I meant by “female-bodied.” Probably individuals who were designated female at birth regardless of their actual gender identity. At the time I wrote this, I didn’t know many cis-gendered males wearing Toms.

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