I first saw TOMS Shoes when the CEO handed a pair to her Executive Assistant.  They had the “Be the Change” quote all over them.  When I first went to look for the website, I googled “Tods”, which was very confusing as it was way more expensive than I thought they’d be and no sign of the cute canvas product.

It took me years before I actually ordered, since they were quite pricy anyways and I wasn’t entirely sure I loved the look. Or rather, that I’d love the look on me.

Then I took the plunge.  After all, the combination of shoes, online shopping and social good had me sold.  I had my TOMS and I fell in love.  I can confidently say that I’ve had 15-20 pairs over the last six years.  Most have taken a beaten and have gone away, some are still in circulation.  During my pregnancy, they were the only shoes I wore. What started a purchase decision based on the trendy + social good factors turned into a real love affair with the ease and the feel of the shoe.

Even as I started to fall out of love with the “buy one, give one” model as a means of an international development model, I could not pull myself away from the shoes.  While all of Philanthropy was critiquing TOMS (google TOMS Shoes critiques), I was wearing them out of sheer loyalty to the comfort of my feet.
That is until one pair fell apart in four weeks.

For social enterprises, we stress that quality and price are the key drivers.  Social good and environmental benefits are good additions, but can not be the main driver of the product. The sole fell off my shoe, and I lost enough faith to start looking elsewhere.

My eyes went directly to the non “buy one, give one” model of Oliberte who had built their brand on the fact their shoes are made in Africa and recently, becoming the world’s first Fair Trade Certified™ footwear manufacturing factory. As a good consumer, I needed to try. They’re pricier, but more beautiful.  They feel like butter on your feet (the suede), but feel less structured.  They run narrow and small, normally a 7.5, my toe is at the edge of the 8.


Oliberte Niami, 8

Aside from my own challenges in sizing, when compared with a similar TOMS style, they are much more well-crafted. When side-by-side, I went back to my original concerns about TOMS – what happened to the quality?

Oli v Toms

Oliberte on left, TOMS on right. The fabric – suede vs. canvas. The quality of Oliberte stitching vs. TOMS uneven toe.

At the end of the day, it comes down to quality and price.  I am a great consumer, especially of social products, but if the sole falls off or the fit is too odd and I can’t wear the shoe – then no social good add on is enough to make me keep coming back. So instead of both of these, I bought a pair of Sketcher’s Bobs.  Much less clear social good element, but the shoe looked sturdy and the sole didn’t look to be moving anywhere.


Bob’s – very sturdy, not as pretty.

TOMS did issue me a full refund for my sole-less shoe, but I was hesitant to buy a new pair.  What if they fell apart again?  I wondered why TOMS women’s shoes couldn’t have the thicker soles like the ones that Bob’s did, but also TOMS kids.  After all, then I could be more certain that the sole wouldn’t fall off.  Then the lightbulb switched on.
I finally clue into what many have known (based on the TOMS reviews)…order kids sizes.  My women’s 7.5 would fit nicely into a kids size 6.  I’d get my quality, my trend, and my social good.

Kids Toms

Tom’s kids – sturdy sole, trendy styles.

And that is where the shoe buying tale ends for now.  I work in philanthropy and in social enterprise, I want to purchase as socially conscious as possible, but it can not be the only element in the equation.  If comfort, fit and quality are left behind, all the social in the world won’t help sell the product.  Then it becomes a donation, and that’s a different engagement with a customers heart and mind.
In no way is the journey over, I saw learned about Ten & Co., run by a women who is sourcing Moroccan rugs and the shoes are being sown, in small batches, by a cobbler in Morocco.
I’m intrigued.

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