Essay

TOMS Shoes and the Spiritual Politics of Neoliberalism

By | October 1, 2013

(Kwaku Alston/TOMS)

(Kwaku Alston/TOMS)

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 ninety-three 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.”

The globalization of neoliberal capitalism, and particularly the popularity of “conscious capitalism” as a practice and a discourse, signals a change in the landscape of U.S. religion and politics. “Neoliberalism” most often refers to a loosely cohering set of economic, social, and political policies that (1) seek to secure human flourishing through the imposition of free markets and (2) locate “freedom” in individual autonomy, expressed through consumer choice. But it is also a mode of belonging, where ritual acts of consumption initiate individuals into a global community of consumer agents. Within neoliberal logics of religious and political action, consumer transactions and corporate expansion are recast as forms of spiritual purification and missionary practice. And within conscious capitalism, the “higher purpose” is a world in which all people have a chance (or obligation) to participate in free markets—understood as a multicultural community of consumers.

For Mycoskie—whose title is “Chief Shoe Giver”—building this multicultural community is a theological mandate. He frames his Christian faith as a component of his personal relationship to the company. At the evangelical Global Leadership Conference, keynote speaker Mycoskie answered a question about whether TOMS represents any “biblical principles”: “TOMS represents a lot of different biblical principles. But the one I go back to again and again is the one in Proverbs. Give your first fruits and your vats will be full. … Because we did that and stayed true to our one-to-one model [even amidst financial strain], we’ve been incredibly blessed. We really did give our first fruits.”

In non-confessional settings, TOMS proffers a humanistic version of this prosperity gospel, recast for a neoliberal age. Losing the Bible quotes, the company emphasizes that the “fruits of faith”—in this case, economic success—abound for those who embody the ideals of authenticity, good intentions, and service. Or, “higher purpose” is profitable. TOMS is successful because it creates opportunities for people to live into their own “purpose” through a simple transaction: buying a pair of shoes. As Mycoskie says, “I wanted to make it easy to make a difference.”

Customers are not just guarantors of a better life for barefoot children; they also are rewarded with inclusion in a global TOMS family, documented on a company blog. Here, staff post baby pictures on Mother’s Day; Mycoskie announces that until readers help him raise $2,000 for a water purification project in Kenya, he is “striking” from taking showers; and interns share recipes. Beaming faces, styled and accessorized bodies, and accounts of freewheeling adventures greet us; it scrapbooks a community that is at once laid back and on fire for change, not to mention emotionally and aesthetically alluring. Here, TOMS is not a profit-motivated “company.” It is rather a “family,” a “community,” and—because these intimate connections have borne good fruit—a “movement.”

The movement doubles as a ministry of healing for both barefoot children and First World consumers yearning for authentic connection in an alienating world. This orientation, in which corporate community binds up the wounds of social fragmentation, is not unique to TOMS. In To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, Bethany Moreton showed how Wal-Mart’s appeals to its evangelical “family values” and “servant leadership” drove its rise to power as a multi-national corporation. In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton demonstrated how Oprah’s Harpo Corporation offers a gospel of therapeutic consumption for disciples who seek respite from their chaotic modern worlds. These three corporations, although quite different on the surface, have at least one commonality: transactions, initiated individually, are the first step to belonging in a community of choice, freedom, and authenticity. Now all that’s left is spreading the gospel.

 

EACH APRIL TOMS URGES its consumer base to go barefoot for 24 hours, on a “holiday” that it has dubbed “One Day without Shoes.” The goal is physically to feel what it is like to live without shoes and to “raise awareness” about the plight of those who go barefoot every day. An info-graphic explains the chain of events that this “movement” is designed to spark: curiosity –> conversation –> action –> change. Corporations—including AOL, AT&T, Microsoft, Lucky Magazine, and L’Oreal—organize company “barefoot marches” each year. TOMS distributes street stencils (“to get rebellious with”) and requires its campus groups to hold events that day—preferably a rally, march, or dance marathon.

Of course, these efforts downplay the fact that many these material inequalities in question—like not having shoes, like needing to have them in order to participate in a global economy—are traceable to the humanitarian crises that neoliberal economic restructuring inflicts in the first place. “One Day Without Shoes” may emphasize an isolated experience of denial-through-bare-feet, but its ultimate impact is to highlight what is required to participate in a global economy.

Or, as one participant put it, “I’m going barefoot this year so I can truly understand the importance of wearing shoes.” Shoes are the first step to full access to a globalizing neoliberal economy and, by extension, the intimate public that compassionate consumption makes possible. It is no mistake that the promotional materials frame shoes as an issue primarily because they insure children’s education and future earnings, or that they are referred to as children of “developing countries.” This is a movement for what the economic and political systems that are already winning. It promotes feelings of political empowerment and spiritual discipline, minus a call for substantive change in economic or social orders.

Furthermore, TOMS’ invitations to step into the shoes (or bare feet) of impoverished children are highly racialized. Through both the “Day without Shoes” and “Ticket to Give” narratives, the company urges its primarily white First World consumers to access a sense of belonging and purpose by performing and replicating the experiences of poor children of color. As the company constantly reminds us, to purchase a pair of TOMS means that a child in a Third World country will receive shoes just like yours. By extension, it means that you are walking in the same shoes, moving through the world in the same ways, and your purchase forged this solidarity. Here, the object of consumer desire shifts: it is no longer the pair of shoes; it is the child who wears them.

To wear TOMS becomes a race and class status symbol, denoting not only membership in a “family” but also the proof of one’s benevolent commitment to building a world in which all children have shoes. In the physical act of wearing TOMS shoes—or opening a Bank of America account after a Pride March, or shopping at Wal-Mart based on its working-class family values, or buying a special red iPod to fight AIDS—is to assert an ideal formation of spiritual piety and political initiative, whether it is explicitly theological or not.

The legitimacy of such initiatives is, of course, always up for debate. TOMS has been criticized for making charity into a for-profit business modality that undermines local businesses, fails to actually alleviate poverty, and does not translate to its shoe-manufacturing practices, and ultimately is not really modeling the do-good global citizenship that it claims. The most strident critiques of TOMS and business models like it have focused on the inconsistencies between its claims to benevolence and its actual material impact.

While such arguments may disabuse us of optimistic notions that TOMS or other purveyors of conscious capitalism leave a soft footprint on the world, they do little to examine why the company has met such broad-based appeal, and they underrate the attachments, desires, and anxieties of those who purchase its products. This company’s success ultimately has very little to do with its ability to convince consumers of its responsibility and “corporate citizenship”; indeed, these questions may be irrelevant to the TOMS consumer base. Rather, TOMS is successful because it has established its products, and the purchase of its products, as avenues toward emotional, physical, and spiritual belonging in a fragmented world.

Is this religion? Is it politics? Not as such. And Mycoskie would distance himself from such an assertion, avoiding any semblance of sectarianism in favor of a family where all agents have a chance to flourish in the global economy. Yet this is exactly what makes TOMS and its conscious capitalist counterparts so alluring. TOMS consolidates religion and politics under a rubric of benevolent consumption and multicultural belonging—ever on a mission to spread a neoliberal gospel and, on the way, bind up the wounds that it inflicts. It feels amazing.

Lucia Hulsether is a Master of Divinity student at Harvard.

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