Brand Story: TOMS – How The ‘One for One’ Model Changed Consumerism

Every month, we will be featuring some of our team’s favorite ethical and socially conscious brands and products. From having a feeling of “I can’t live without these” to being inspired by the people who make them, these goods and companies have a story of their own; we want to share them!

Check out our first brand feature with the product that started our CEO’s love of socially conscious products, the famous TOMS infoshoes.

Read below to learn more about TOMS:

If there is one brand that has come to exemplify the concept of ‘social entrepreneurship’ over the last few years, it is TOMS – the California-based shoe company set up by Texan entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie that has ‘One for One’ as part of not only its brand tagline but also its business model.

TOMS’ blend of money-making and giving has influenced many a startup, as well as several established bigger name brands, since the company began over ten years ago. Other brands such as Warby Parker and One World Futbol have adopted and adapted the one-for-one approach while emphasizing that they are selling a lifestyle concept, not just merely the physical product that their customers walk away with.

Through the ‘One for One’ approach, where people in developing countries receive a free product every time one is sold, TOMS has given away over 60 million shoes in 59 different countries to date. That’s a lot of social giving. The company is proof that you can build your business model around social responsibility and be a success. TOMS estimated value is over $600 million and it can count Karl Lagerfeld and Charlize Theron among its high profile supporters.

The company is very much the product of its founder Mycoskie, an eccentric free spirit, who was determined to attach a social value to his ventures. Having been involved in various startups over the years, he started TOMS – which was originally called the Shoes For Tomorrow Project before being abbreviated – after a trip to Argentina in 2006 where he became aware of the problems caused by large numbers of people in poorer areas, particularly children, not having shoes.

Using money from one of his other startups, Mycoskie started an online shoe company with the aim of providing a free pair of shoes for every pair he sold. He based his main design on the local Argentine ‘alpargata’ canvas slip-on shoe, meaning that the shoes donated would be suitable for the locals.

Despite having no direct experience in the footwear industry, the venture was an immediate success with 10,000 pairs sold in the first six months. Proof perhaps that if you come up with an original idea that is based around social good, consumers will buy into it. Mycoskie was able to kickstart things with minimal outlay on marketing as big publications such as Vogue and the Los Angeles Times ran features on his idea.

Distribution of the free shoes quickly spread to other countries where a need had been identified, such as Ethiopia and Haiti, and in 2007 TOMS launched an annual awareness day called ‘One Day Without Shoes’.

Mycoskie has been careful to ensure that every aspect of the business has an ethical slant, from using sustainable and recycled packaging to partnering with international development charities and working on initiatives to improve lives. For example, shoes given away in Malawi were used to encourage young parents to take their children to clinics for health checks.

TOMS even employed a Chief Giving Officer to oversee its charitable operations.

But TOMS has not been without its critics, some of whom have pointed out that simply providing an area with free products is not a long-term solution in tackling the root causes of poverty. As well as the danger of creating a ‘culture of dependency’, it can also have a negative effect on local traders and industry.

Another criticism has been that TOMS has used supply chains in places such as China in order to keep costs low. There have been problems regarding work conditions and labour rights with these supply chains, and TOMS itself has had issues with some of the factories used in production.

To his credit, Mycoskie has faced these criticisms and sought to do something about the issues raised. This led to a pledge to have at least one-third of all donated products made by local providers by the end of 2015.

The company has also worked hard to ensure that minimum standards are guaranteed in all factories producing TOMS equipment.

For Mycoskie, it doesn’t stop there. Following in the footsteps of one of his heroes Richard Branson, he sees the TOMS business model of social entrepreneurship as being replicable across industries and has stated an intent to branch out into one new product per year.

This has already begun. Having launched an eyewear line in 2011 (possibly inspired by Warby Parker), Mycoskie followed this up with TOMS Roasting Co. coffee in 2014, TOMS Bag Collection in 2015 and TOMS High Road Backpacks in 2016.

Each of these products uses the TOMS One-for-One model. For every pair of glasses sold, a person in need receives free eye treatment. For every bag of coffee sold, a weeks supply of water is provided to a family in a developing country. Money from bag sales is used to train people abroad in safer birth techniques. Money from sale of backpacks helps to train school staff to help prevent bullying in schools at home.

To date, TOMS sales have provided 400,000 eye repairs, 335,000 weeks of safe drinking water and 25,000 safe births in developing countries.

To deliver these programs, TOMS works with over 100 partners. The company also runs a Social Entrepreneurship Fund to identify and support new start ups, and it has invested over $2 million in fighting foot disease in Ethiopia.

Mycoskie shows no signs of slowing up. He recently sold 50% of TOMS to Bain Capital in order to invest in the Social Entrepreneurship Fund as well as new product lines. He also published a book Start Something That Matters in 2012 to spread his message. In typical Mycoskie fashion, a reading book is provided to a child in need for every copy sold.

Expect to see more TOMS product ranges in the coming years, as well as a bumper crop of new startups funded through the entrepreneurship fund and inspired by Mycoskie’s mission.