This one is trickier than Target and Urban Outfitters.
Sometimes “voting with your dollars” can be a lot more complicated than regular voting.
Friday, NY Mag pointed out that Blake Mycoskie, founder of altruistic shoe brand “Toms,” recently supported Focus on the Family— a far-right, religious non-profit which condemns gay marriage and abortion.
This news may be disappointing to hundreds of thousands of Toms’ customers who bought the shoes thinking the company’s values were aligned with their own.
Toms, which makes funky, earthy slip-ons which go for about $44, became famous for their charitable business model: for every pair of shoes bought by customers, Mycoskie donates another pair to a needy child somewhere in the world. This “one-for-one” program has provided well over 1,000,000 impoverished children with new shoes.
For those kids, this is a big deal. In countries like Uganda and Zambia, for many, foot protection is a luxury. Toms helps children keep their feet safe from cuts and infection, and enables them to do basic, essential activities that we take for granted like walking to school. You can be cynical and say Toms is just doing it for brand but no matter how you spin it, the company makes a huge difference in the lives of some very needy kids.
That’s why buying Toms feels good. It’s also why Mycoskie’s involvement in Focus on the Family is disappointing for customers who are also passionate about gay and reproductive rights.
For more on Focus on the Family see their website. Their position on abortion states, “Focus on the Family opposes abortion under all circumstances, except in the rare instance when the mother’s life is threatened by continuing the pregnancy.” That includes instances of rape and incest.
They also strongly oppose gay marriage. The Federal Marriage Amendment Wikipedia page quotes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who believes that because of gays, marriage “…is about to descend into a state of turmoil unlike any other in human history.”
Choosing a political candidate isn’t hard. They package themselves with easy-to-understand slogans and remain in our faces all day long. (Obama: healthcare and change; Bachmann: anti-abortion and God.)
Companies on the other hand—where votes actually matter— are in our face doing something else: selling us a product and lifestyle, such as shoes that tell people we care about global issues. To vote well, consumers have to research and educate themselves about the companies they shop from.
That’s why Toms is complicated. If people stop buying their footwear, a bunch of kids who need shoes won’t get them from Toms. Yet if they continue, they’re indirectly endorsing—or at least condoning—Toms’ opposition to basic rights for gays and women.
Customers of Toms who believe in voting with their dollars are now asking: What’s more important, gay and reproductive rights or clothing for impoverished children?
For me, this wasn’t that easy to answer, mostly because there are so few brands which even attempt to do what Toms does. If anything, Toms’ altruistic business model mixed with anti-gay and women’s rights political support illustrates just how much care and energy “voting with your dollars” can take.
(Update: Yesterday, Mycoskie responded to the growing criticism over his support for “Focus on the Family” in a statement to Change.org. “Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event,” the statement said. “It was an oversight on my part and the company’s part and one we regret. In the last 18 months we have presented at over 70 different engagements and we do our best to make sure we choose our engagements wisely, on this one we chose poorly.” Read it here in full.)