First Person

Is raising awareness enough?

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Local shoe sellers at a market in Darfur, Sudan. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America
Local shoe sellers at a market in Darfur, Sudan. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

Last week, my colleague Anna wrote a great article on TOMS founder, Blake Mycoskie, and noted the dynamic between socially-aware businesses and nonprofit organizations. There has been a lot of discussion recently about TOMS and their “One Day Without Shoes” campaign—which happens today—especially on social media sites like Twitter.

But have you heard about its counter-campaign: “A Day Without Dignity”? The latter argues that instead of talking about raising awareness and charity, we should highlight the inherent dignity of people and sustainable development.

So needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about shoes: TOMS shoes that is. I own a pair myself. When I bought them, I liked knowing that my purchase would help a child in need. But I’ve also been thinking about charity, awareness, and sustainable development. As hundreds of thousands go without shoes today to raise awareness about the lack of shoes, a basic necessity in developing countries, some of us are raising the question: is that enough?

As a social media professional and an employee (and supporter) of Oxfam, I’m torn between the two campaigns.  I can clearly see the value of raising awareness, as well as the importance of for-profit organizations employing a socially responsible business model.  But I also understand the difference between charity and long-term, sustainable solutions.

For example, contrast TOMS’ “shoe-drops” with what my colleague Coco wrote about the importance of locally made shoes in Ethiopia:

“Plastic shoes—slip-ons or sandals– play a central role in the lives of herders who spend their days mucking through corrals, traipsing across pastures filled with sharp grasses and prickles, and wading into streams and ponds to water their cattle….

For a long time, plastic products came from Kenya, Tibebu says, shipped in on the road we now roll down —the only one between Addis Ababa and the border. But these days, plastic jerry cans, baskets, and shoes are all made in Ethiopia, many of them manufactured in the capital. And when it comes to shoes, they provide never-ending service: People collect the cast-offs so they can be ground down and used to make whole new pairs.”

So I’m opening this question up to you: Is raising awareness enough? Does TOMS shoes portray the beneficiaries of their “shoe-drops” as people with dignity or charity cases? Is it just good “cause marketing”? Should we disapprove of their business model because it doesn’t do enough to be sustainable, or applaud them for integrating social responsibility into business?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment or join in the conversation with us on Twitter. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+