TOMS Shoes and the Neoliberal Gospel

Like other “conscious” businesses, TOMS Shoes sells a neoliberal gospel of benevolent consumption, while hiding the material realities of its business model.

| March/April 2014

  • We no longer buy only what we need, or even what broadcasts our identity. We buy what makes us feel like good people, and what makes us feel like members of a good, global community.
    Photo by Flickr/Vivianna_love

Here they are, smiling and crying, the words catching in their throats as they place tiny shoes to the feet of tiny children. Seven strangers, the YouTube video tells us—a recycling truck driver, a retired nurse, a special education teacher, a college student—all astonished to be invited on a special mission: to deliver free pairs of TOMS shoes to needy children in Honduras.

If you’re unfamiliar with TOMS, here’s the backstory: When he founded TOMS in 2006, Blake Mycoskie pledged to give away one pair of shoes for every one he sold. The results make for strong emotions and good theater. The American head of the Honduran orphanage tells the promotional video’s viewers: “TOMS givers, you did amazing! We just put 93 pairs of shoes on children’s feet!” Jackie, a student and part-time waitress, strapping a pair of shoes onto a child, says: “My first shoe give was this little boy … there was a language barrier but the connection that we shared transcended all of that.” Others recount, in the same tones, their takeaway lessons: “Children are children wherever they are” and, in another video, “When you’re not seeing how you’re going to get through the day, you can realize that … I’ve been there, I’ve touched the feet, I’ve hugged the children, It’s all worth it.”

On first blush, these “Ticket to Give” trips—a regular part of TOMS public relations—seem so transparently good-intentioned that they scarcely warrant comment. What is hidden behind the obvious, however, is something much more powerful—call it the emotional, even religious, side of neoliberal capitalism. Not only TOMS, but also Starbucks and even Lockheed Martin and Wal-Mart have learned that linking their products to charitable causes makes for good business. We no longer buy only what we need, or even what broadcasts our identity. We buy what makes us feel like good people, and what makes us feel like members of a good, global community.

The easy way to look at TOMS is to praise their charitable work. The harder, more troubling way to look at TOMS is to acknowledge it as an example of how corporations have assumed work most often associated with self-identified religious organizations: building community, engaging in charity, and cultivating morals. It scarcely matters if we are comfortable with this new vision of a corporate gospel. Whatever we think, it is spreading like wildfire. So it is worthwhile to risk looking behind the appeal of charity to the transformed meaning of consumer spending—like buying TOMS shoes—that occurs in the background.


TOMS is not alone in its willingness to link progressive social action with consumer spending. In fact, it exemplifies a broader corporate embrace of “conscious capitalism.” Coined by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, this business model assumes that “the best way to maximize profits over the long-term” is to orient business toward a “higher purpose.” So Starbucks sells coffee to “Put America Back to Work,” the (RED) campaign raises money to fight AIDS, and—in the best example yet—Sir Richard’s Condom Company sends a condom to Haiti for each one it sells (“doing good never felt better”). Meanwhile, Bank of America logos decorate PRIDE banners and Lockheed Martin brags that it is a “champion of diversity.”

3/14/2014 11:28:33 AM

Replace the word "neoliberal" with neoconsevative. Does it change the meaning/intent of the article?

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