A Conversation With: Buddy Teaster

Buddy Teaster,

Buddy Teaster, CEO and president of Soles4Souls

Buddy Teaster is no stranger to pounding pavement. He has run a dozen 100-milers and numerous trail races, the power of patience and persistence never leaving his side. And the most important gear he owns? His shoes.

It makes sense, then, that he is the CEO and president of Soles4Souls, an anti-poverty organization and RunningShoes.com’s charity partner. The organization began as a way to help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as well as Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Soles4Souls has distributed more than 21 million pairs of shoes and millions of pieces of clothing in about 127 countries.

Soles4Souls collects new and used shoes and clothing from manufacturers, faith-based organizations, schools, civic organizations and individuals. It then distributes donations directly or through its partnerships with micro-enterprise programs that help facilitate job growth in poor communities.

“The importance of shoes goes way back,” Teaster says. “You can look in lots of traditions and see how people talk about shoes as a metaphor and as a way to understand what it means to really be in need. It turns out to be a very powerful symbol. Everyone understands why having a pair of shoes in important.”

The organization aims to see five million people this fiscal year alone benefit from Soles4Souls’ donations. In three years, Teaster hopes this number reaches 10 million annually.

Soles4Souls distributes donations for free and through micro-business efforts. Describe why the organization uses these two strategies.

We give away shoes for free to people in need because they’re in a tough spot. That might be because of poverty or might be after natural disaster. About half of our business is that free distribution. The other half is micro-enterprise. We think about the free distribution as a way to help in the short term. The micro-enterprise side clearly has a much longer term impact. It’s harder to explain, it’s harder to implement, and it’s a much more ongoing relationship. But long term, we believe that giving people the tools and the resources to help them create their own incomes is what makes a big difference.

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A pair of shoes that a Soles4Souls donation replaced.

How does Soles4Souls decide which countries to begin these micro-enterprises in?

What we’re looking for is a great partner. In Haiti, for example, we are partnered with a group called the Haitian American Caucus. They have a micro-credit program where they loan small amounts of money to women who want to start their own businesses. For us, that is a perfect match because HAC knows the community, and the community knows them. We are able to come in and say to HAC, “Those of your clients who are in the used shoe and clothing business, we can provide them better quality product at a better price more consistently.” And that turns out to make a huge difference for these women. Three quarters of the country lives on less than $2 per day. Now, they might be able to earn $5, $10, $15, $20 a day. It has a dramatic impact.

A number of the shoes Soles4Souls collects come from shoe drives. What’s the most number of shoes collected at a shoe drive that you have heard about?

This past spring, we had a contest to collect used shoes and clothes, and whoever collected the most won a trip for two with us when we traveled to Haiti. We had a woman who, over the course of three or six months, collected 75,000 pounds of shoes and clothes. And the second place person out in Colorado collected 60,000.

Describe the life cycle of a shoe once its hits a Soles4Souls warehouse.

Most, if not all, go through our warehouse in Alabama. With our new shoes [that we get from manufacturers], we know we have this many of this kind, and we’re ready to say, “OK, we need 200 pairs to go to the Union Gospel Mission in Nashville, we need 300 pairs to go to Oklahoma, and we need 5,000 pairs to go to Jamaica.” New shoes don’t have to be sorted and graded. They come packaged on pallets, very organized. The other shoes may be a mess. There may be new, high-quality stuff in there, and there might be stuff that really ought to be thrown in the trash.

What happens with the shoes that you all receive that don’t quite meet the standards?

There is very little that we can’t use, but we’re working on some different ideas. Right now, they’re stacking up. The solution that we had previously was to incinerate them in a high energy thing that turned waste into electricity. It was very expensive for us to dispose of them in that way. We are talking to a couple different partners now who have come up with a couple of new, lower-price alternatives to that. There’s a company called TerraCycle that has done some amazing work at recycling the toughest kind of products, including footwear. We talked to a company called Austin Rubber, and they are developing technology to recycle the rubber in shoes in a totally different way. Our commitment is that no more than 1 percent of what we get goes into the landfill.

Soles4Souls travels around the world on distribution trips through its Travel4Souls program. Tell us more about these initiatives and the experiences people can gain from traveling abroad. 

We do 20 to 25 trips a year. We go to Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Tanzania. For a lot of people, it’s the first time they have ever left the United States. It’s an invitation into another world. It’s a powerful experience to be there and wash people’s feet and put shoes on them and interact with them and try to understand a little bit about their lives. Collecting shoes is great but to actually see the impact that a pair of shoes has in the developing country—you come back changed from that experience.

Shoes distributed by Cornerstone Church, a nonprofit partner of Soles4Souls in Kenya.

Cornerstone Church, a nonprofit partner of Soles4Souls, distributed shoes at an orphanage in Kenya.

People can also raise money for the organization through Charity Miles, an app that donates money per each mile ran, biked or walked. Tell us a little about this new initiative.

Charity Miles is a blast. Until I hooked up with Charity Miles, I would never run with my iPhone, but now I do every time. It’s a clever, clever thing that they’re doing at Charity Miles—finding partners and sponsors who want to connect with an active audience and incentivizing people to run, walk, bike and then making a contribution for that. We’ve had thousands and thousands of people sign up for the app using Soles4Souls for the selected charity. It was a great response, and we love their model.

Discuss the idea behind the Barefoot4Them movement, a day that Soles4Souls sponsors to encourage participants to go without shoes.

What we’re trying to do is give people a little taste of what it’s like to be without shoes for a day, knowing that we have a choice [to not wear shoes]. You can’t go into stores or where you don’t want to walk. If you had on shoes, you would never think about it. It’s just a little insight into what that would be like every day for millions of people.

What sort of responsibility do you think Soles4Souls has in helping eliminate poverty?

The work that we are doing shows us that one pair of donated shoes in Haiti adds $19 of economic value there. It does a lot of things for the economy in Haiti, especially for the person who is selling the shoe in the market. We have the tools, infrastructure, relationship, reputation to do that in more places and to help more people. I think we have responsibilities as humans to help our fellow people. I think at Soles4Souls we have that responsibility 10 times over because people trust us, they give us their stuff to make a difference. It’s a lot of responsibility and a tremendous opportunity.

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