Point of View: Socially conscious consumers shouldn’t stop helping at the register

By Stephen Strobbe

So there are these shoes called TOMS. Everyone has probably seen them and many perhaps even own a pair of them.

They are these pseudo-bohemian canvas shoes that fit more like a pair of socks and have a tendency to be worn by the more socially minded (and vagrant) youth. This is because TOMS are not just a pair of shoes, oh no. You see for every pair of TOMS someone buys, the company will donate a pair of shoes to someone who really needs them.

This business model allows the company to charge a fairly high price for a seemingly cheap pair of shoes. I actually think this is a really good idea.

Americans are consumers and we tend to have significantly more money than we know what to do with, so if they can get someone to spend a little more in order to better the lives of our poverty-stricken brothers and sisters, then where’s the harm in that?

I am all for a company setting out to provide some level of charity to the rest of society with its profits.

To that point, I also don’t think people should ever be coerced into providing for others.

Because when charity becomes an institution or a requirement, then the entire concept of concern for our brethren disappears, leaving behind nothing but a hollow bitterness misdirected at either the “haves” for not giving enough or the “have-nots” for wanting more than they deserve.

So a company that gets people to want to spend a little bit extra with the sole, or at least primary, purpose being to help others is definitely OK in my book.

So there probably isn’t a whole lot wrong with that — more power to them.

But I do think there is the potential for a huge problem with the person buying TOMS. As I see it, the dangers are two-fold.

First, a culture of charity is possibly demoted to the status of a trend resulting in concern for others that is actually more concerned with riding the most recent wave of what is popular or a concern for others that is misplaced, directed less at people’s hearts and more at people’s egos.

When charity is brought down to a passing trend, what then happens when charity is no longer trendy?

I mean, when’s the last time you thought about a Furby or Beanie Babies or a Tamagochi or Jean Claude Van Damme? Probably not recently, right?

Unless you’re the kind of person who simply cannot deny the doubled charm of Double Impact or, like me, haven’t bought Pokémon Black (yet).

Trends come and go. Something as important as having genuine concern for others is maybe a little too important to relegate to the ranks of a “What’s Hot This Year” feature.

And secondly, I think that there is a danger in promoting what could be called the illusion of charity.

That is to say, by buying a pair of shoes, we can convince ourselves that we are making the world a better place.

Maybe that’s true. But then, what if we were all to settle for only buying a socially conscious pair of shoes? What if we decided that’s all, that we needed to do? After all it’s a lot easier to pay somebody else to care for the poor than to do it ourselves. And hey, maybe I was going to buy a pair of shoes anyway so I can just spend a little more, buy TOMS and then I’m also doing my good deed.

The risk becomes akin to saying, “No I’m not going to give food to a homeless person, I just put money in a Salvation Army collection two weeks ago.”

We love feeling like we’re helping others, but sometimes we really don’t want to put forth any actual effort. Charity is great so long as it doesn’t inconvenience our normal daily lives.

Maybe that’s a really cynical view. I was talking to my friend the other night about this and he said TOMS will totally help kids in Rwanda – because they could use them as fuel for a night-time fire.

Truth is, at the end of the day, a company has set out to try to make the world a better place. That is a good thing.

We just have to make sure it isn’t in vain. If buying TOMS sparks an interest in taking a more active concern for others, then the shoes have done their job.

We need to be careful, though, not to confuse the key that starts the car with the persistent care for the engine that is needed to run it.

Stephen Strobbe is a senior journalism major from Richardson and a reporter for the Lariat.