Building a Sustainable Shoe Industry in Haiti

January 21st, 2015 by TOMS

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Amar is the Director of Giving Operations at TOMS. A large part of his job has been overseeing TOMS’ local manufacturing efforts, including the set-up and opening of the TOMS factory in Haiti. Since our commitment to produce 1/3 of our Giving Shoes locally, Amar has traveled to nearly all of our manufacturing sites to help them stay on track and improve operations. He recently returned from his second trip to Haiti, and was eager to share the progress we’ve made together…

According to the World Bank, Haiti is the least developed country in the Western Hemisphere, with over half of its population living under the poverty line. But there is another side of Haiti that many don’t get the opportunity to see or experience. That side is what makes many — like my colleagues at TOMS and myself — fall in love with Haiti.

Haitians embody the word “perseverance.” No matter what happened in the past, people will continually have faith that tomorrow will be a better day…and they strive to achieve that. The country and people are vibrant. There are unbelievable organizations like TOMS Giving Partners IMA World Health and Partners In Health who couple our shoes with medical distributions and education opportunities to help provide incentive for those to live healthier lives and stay in school. Local artisans and business are popping up, like Caribbean Craft, where local artisans create vibrant papier-mâché products all while playing music, laughing and joking with one another.

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Just one week ago, Jan. 12, marked the five-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake. I heard a story where Bill Clinton visited Haiti shortly after the earthquake and asked what he could do to help- the answer he received ‘jobs’. It was unbelievable to think that the foresight existed to create something sustainable.

Over the last year, TOMS was able to work with our manufacturing partner, LXJ Golden Pacific to manufacture shoes in Port-au-Prince. A shoe industry did not exist prior in the city.

Going into this tremendous project, I was proud that TOMS would make a commitment to help improve Haiti, and encourage other companies to do the same. We all knew it was going to be a tall order. We faced challenges just about every step of the way — from getting reliable sources of electricity and water, to training a staff that has never manufactured shoes to learning local laws and cultural norms — all to ensure operations ran smoothly every day.

But it wasn’t until meeting our employees that I truly understood the impact of what we were doing. One factory employee, Carmita, cares for nine children in her family. Prior to working for TOMS she did not have a consistent job and mostly worked a variety of different day jobs to help make ends meet.

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As I learned later, many people in Haiti often live off credit, some for their entire lives. Carmita’s husband shared the story of the day she received her first paycheck. Carmita went back home to her family with her first paycheck. Not only was it the first paycheck from our factory, but also the first paycheck she received in her life. With her children back from school, the entire family circled together, hugged each other, shed some tears and celebrated. When asking her children what they wanted, her daughter responded immediately with “Candy!” with a big smile.

There is no doubt that working in a manufacturing center is hard manual labor. But, no matter where you are in the world or how much or how little you have, some basic principles exist, oftentimes the most important one being the desire to take care of family and give your children the opportunity to live a better life. As a first generation American, I understand the sacrifices my parents made to give my brother and I a better life, and I am thankful for what they did. It’s because of their drive and dedication, I truly appreciate being a part of an organization that allows others the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their children.

Thanks to our manufacturing partner and our wonderful Giving Partners who reach the children of Haiti, and my unbelievable team that rolls with every punch and fights fires every day to make sure we stay in the business of improve lives. Without them and our customers, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.