Often hailed as an ethical shoe company, TOMS® is most well-known for its One for One campaign. If you buy a TOMS shoe, they’ll donate a TOMS shoe elsewhere to communities who need it. I decided to check out their Earthrise collection, which is apparently their most sustainable line. After spending hours skimming through their impact reports, supplier code of conduct, regulations, and social justice initiatives, I’m frankly quite impressed. The fact that I can dig through so many reports is a testament to their transparency. Unlike many companies, TOMS doesn’t complicate their impact reports with inaccessible jargon for the everyday consumer. I actually enjoyed reading them, thanks to TOMS’ pretty report artwork! TOMS’ persuasive marketing and copywriting aside, I do believe in TOMS’s well-meaning intentions. They’ve really considered every step of their product’s life cycle up to the packaging, sourced materials sustainably, actively implemented sustainable processing, and do not shy away from keeping themselves accountable. Keep up the good work, TOMS — don’t let us down!
TOMS is pretty transparent about the shoe’s materials and even provides a framework in layperson terms. Let’s start by breaking down what makes the shoe exterior. TOMS’s Earthwise shoes are made out of 100% organic cotton, which means it is grown without pesticides, toxic chemicals, or genetically modified seeds. Although this means there is less cotton yield per acre, there is less chemical damage on the soil, in the air, and in the waters as compared to typical fertilizers and chemicals. Furthermore, another shoe component includes recycled materials - namely recycled polyester, which is made from post-consumer plastic bottles, and regenerated nylon, which is made from “fishing nets, fabric scraps, old carpets, and industrial nylon waste.” TOMS also uses eco fibers, which are obtained from wood pulp harvested from certified and sustainably managed forests. They’ve also chosen hemp, linen, and jute as these eco-fibers do not need chemicals nor as much water for growth. In order to dye their shoes, they’ve also chosen natural dyes from botanicals. Now that we’ve covered the shoe exterior, let’s unpack the components of its interior. The insoles are made with recycled rubble and the component attaching the insole and outsole is made from “70-80% recycled polyester.” Ultimately, TOMS’s Earthwise collection is also vegan and made from mostly recycled material. Frankly, I’m pretty impressed by TOMS’ efforts to be as sustainable as possible. Extra brownie points for their transparency in accessible language for the consumer!
Let’s start with cotton. TOMS manufactures in China and their cotton is sourced from Xinjiang, China so there are fewer emissions on that front. Farmers first extract and clean the fiber from the cotton ball, then twist the fiber into yarn which eventually gets woven into a cloth. As for eco-fibers, TOMS requires their supplies to use environmentally friendly processing such as ‘closed-loop’ lyocell (an eco-fiber) processing. Next, TOM upcycles post-consumer waste (also known as PET waste) into polyester fiber. After collecting, crushing, and pressing post-consumer waste into bales, manufacturers obtain the clean PET waste and purify it. These pure PET fragments then decompose into polyester fiber, which is blended with cotton to make the shoe’s organic canvas. Next, manufacturers apply dyes made from “natural botanicals” to the canvas. This is a great alternative to conventionally used AZO dyes, which negatively impact soil fertility and animals. The shoe’s outsole is bio-based EVA, a sugar cane biofuel responsible for its rubber-like texture and durability. Bio-based EVA is also a more sustainable alternative than conventional EVA, which contributes to carbon emissions as it is derived from fossil fuels. In fact, its sugar cane crops are carbon-negative since they consume carbon dioxide and return oxygen. TOMS also uses recyclable packaging, although I think they could also hold collection campaigns for consumers to return used shoes. Still, good job so far, TOMS!
While TOMS’s production process may not have huge environmental impacts, shipping their products do. Consumers of TOMS shoes often come from developed countries whereas their products are produced in countries such as China, Vietnam, and India. Shipping their shoes will therefore create emissions and I couldn’t find any mention of carbon offsetting practices. Nonetheless, TOMS does a lot of their One for One model’s shoe giving to local communities in their manufacturing locations, which means fewer emissions. While I still think TOMS has room for improvement, I’m still giving them a generous rating of 2.4 planets. I admire their transparency (particularly liked how they listed out all their factory locations) and decent sustainability progress over the years. This evidence makes me more likely to believe they’ll achieve their sustainability goals.
Given that TOMS is a certified B Corp™, they’re legally obligated to consider how their decisions affect their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. For context, a B Corp certification is given to for-profit companies that use business for a positive impact on communities after heavy regulation of their practices. This appears to be the case given that TOMS donates one-third of its profits to grassroots groups and works closely with them. I had to admit, I was skeptical of their shoe giving model but was glad to see that it’s implemented fairly. Rather than just dropping shoes at communities, they’ve worked with local communities to integrate it in their programs, paid for storage and management of shoes, and also conducted studies to ensure their efforts do not unintentionally harm communities. Notably, TOMS B Corp score has improved from 96.3 in 2018 to 121.5 in 2020. This is a good sign of striving efforts to sustainability and social justice rather than empty promises.
Moreover, TOMS’s labor practices are transparent and well-documented. They’ve put in effort and capital to gathering expertise to improve worker rights. This manifests in their certification with the Fair Labor Association and their Supplier Code of Conduct which addresses and requires compliance with labor laws, no forced labor, no exploitation of labor and indigenous groups, and more. They’ve also got a whole webpage disclosing their supply chain practices and work with the UK Modern Slavery Act and California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. Their practices involve frequent and heavy auditing of factories and prohibiting factories from engaging subcontractors without TOM’s permission to mitigate risks of slavery and human trafficking. I like TOMS acknowledges the risks of slavery in the countries they manufacture and hold themselves accountable in preventing them in factories. Glassdoor reviews also check out -- TOMS employees are generally happy, contributing to their 4.1 / 5 average rating at this time of writing. I’m generous with planets for TOMS this round because I like their efforts but most importantly, their accountability with their goals as past evidence shows.