Locals weigh in on TOMS shoes trend

By Emily Hoover | ehoover@flagler.edu

For Flagler College junior Joshua Weaver, TOMS shoes are more than casual and comfortable shoes that complete every outfit and represent personal style—they promote a worthy cause that affects everyone, from the First World to the Third.

“I first heard about TOM shoes when I was a senior in high school [in 2008],” he said. “I had a friend in a band that was sponsored by TOM shoes. I read their mission statement, loved their style and the one for one business model. I thought: ‘I love that idea. I’m going to buy them.’ ”

According to the TOMS shoes website, founder Blake Mycoskie traveled to Argentina in 2006. When he “befriended” the local children, the website said, he discovered “they had no shoes on their feet.” He decided, upon returning to the U.S., to create a shoe company that would “match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need,” a concept the company calls One for One.

As of September 2010, the TOMS shoe company has given 1 million pairs of shoes to needy children in developing countries, the website said in its 2010 Giving Report. The style of the shoe is inspired by traditional Argentinean shoes called “alpargatas.”

Weaver said he has accumulated 12 or 13 different pairs of TOMS shoes through personal purchase and gift cards, as well as a free pair through his youth group. He said he thinks the one-for-one concept separate TOMS shoes from other fashion trends and speak to the trend of social consciousness.

“Some people wear them for the cool factor,” Weaver, a fine arts and graphic design major, said. “I like them. I have a pair of botas, which are made very well. I don’t wear them because other people think they look good—I wear them for the cause. Some people don’t get it. They don’t understand how easy they have it.”

Flagler College junior Justin Register said he “is not opposed to the cause” behind TOMS shoes but also said he does not own a pair.

“I wanted a pair,” he said. “But two of my friends jumped on the trend, and I didn’t want to be in the TOMS shoes club.”

While Alyssa Murfey, another junior, said she tries to be “socially responsible,” she also said she bought her first pair of TOMS shoes—she picked out a glittery gold pair with her grandmother before Christmas—because they worked with her personal style. Murfey said she reads fashion magazines, but does not “center her wardrobe on what’s hot for spring.”

“People like to be both [fashion conscious and socially conscious],” Murfey said. “You know, everyone has TOMS; now I need a pair. It’s a bandwagon thing. But the good cause backed my purchase.”

Murfey, a communication major with a focus in public relations, said she likes to buy environmentally safe products when she can and enjoys “socially responsible projects” as a member of Flagler’s Students in Free Enterprise chapter, a campus organization that prides itself on its community service projects. However, she also said the for-profit business is unique in its charity model.

“[TOMS shoes] is geared to the consciousness of things,” she said. “They play into our options as consumers. Why wouldn’t you want to support a cause? Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of a social trend?”

Yet, Register, a theatre arts and religion and philosophy double major, said social consciousness is a trend that does not require real action.

“It’s counter-intuitive,” he said. “It’s like if we watch Michael Moore’s ‘Capitalism.’ We can watch these things that show us what’s wrong, but we’re still not acting. But if we find a pair of shoes in which a percentage of the proceeds benefit a child in need, then it’s an easy way to streamline our way into being socially conscious.”

He said social trends allow the followers to project the illusion of social consciousness. It’s all about appearance, he said.

“TOMS shoes is a convenient, trendy way [to be conscious], which is nice,” Register said. “But it’s all surface level. If we look like we want to be, we don’t have to actually be that thing.”

Junior McKay Stephan, who said he prefers Vans shoes to TOMS, agrees.

“A business built around a charity is a better way to show off for your peers,” Stephan, an economics major, said. “They’re monopolizing a stupid subculture. But, it is a clever business model — like fishing with dynamite.”

However, Weaver said he attempted to start a TOMS shoes club at Flagler upon transferring in 2009. Because Flagler already has a human rights club, he was denied accreditation. Now, Weaver said he spreads awareness to his friends and family through social media and word of mouth.

“We signed up through [the company],” he said, “but the school didn’t understand at the time. There wasn’t a huge scene around here, only in bigger cities. TOMS are huge around campus now, which is great.”

In response to TOMS shoes’ popularity, Goldfinch Boutique on San Marco Boulevard began selling them a year ago.

Amelia Fitt, who owns Goldfinch with her husband Steve, said TOMS shoes are popular for two reasons: they are fashionable and comfortable and the company “donates a pair of shoes to a child in need each time one is sold.”

She said because she believes in the impact of TOMS shoes, her business decided to sponsor the inaugural Barefoot Walk in St. Augustine, which will happen on April 5. She said she has “reached out” to other local organizations, including Flagler College, Communities in School and Campus Crusade for Christ to help organize the event.

“We care about others, especially impoverished children, and the conditions they have to live in,” Fitt said in an email. “We have two children ourselves so this cause is close to our hearts. We feel this is so much more than just giving money to individuals in Third World countries; it has a better effect. It enables children to attend school and better themselves to help make a difference in their own communities and realize their full potential.”

The TOMS shoes website said a leading cause for disease comes from “soil-transmitted diseases, which penetrate the skin through bare feet.” The website also said the company promotes education, because some children cannot go to school if they cannot afford shoes.

Murfey, who works in the Flagler’s Legacy store on St. George Street and said she wears her TOMS to work, will be at the event. She also said SIFE will be selling merchandise.

She said even if people base their decision to purchase on the fashion trend, TOMS shoes evokes social change.

“It’s still going to a good cause,” she said. “I’d rather follow TOMS than Marlboro or alcohol. You don’t have to be in the TOMS shoes club to wear them. I embrace the cause.”

Fitt agrees.

“It’s a win-win [situation] that TOMS look cool, feel great and help out children in need,” she said. “People who purchase should be aware. We make sure to let them know about the cause and TOMS had a lot of information included with each shoe.”

While some students, like junior Andreas Landers, do not care for the style, they support the cause.

“I’m all about practicality and they’re not sturdy enough for me,” Landers, a Spanish major, said. “But I like the cause. TOMS shoes are better than no shoes for those who don’t have any. It’s a smart way to do charity—make it trendy.”

Yet, Weaver said skeptics who accuse TOMS as being a marketing ploy do not accept that it is also a for-profit business working with nonprofit organizations in countries like Ethiopia, Cambodia, Honduras, Rwanda and the U.S.

“They had to make a profit,” he said. “Without that, millions wouldn’t have shoes. Blake [Mycoskie] ran the business out of his house before the business expanded. TOMS donates to needy children in America, too. A lot of people don’t realize that.”

While Weaver hopes that the Barefoot Walk will inspire locals—he participated in a TOMS shoes Barefoot Day last year—he agrees that the company blends a worthy cause with a fashion statement.

“Some people are now wearing TOMS when they used to make fun of me for it,” he said. “It’s a lot like vegetarianism. People say they’re environmentally conscious, but they throw a cigarette butt [on the ground]. But, we take shoes for granted. I think we take a lot for granted.”

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