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It would be wrong to say TOMS shoes invented the Buy-One-Give-One model when it hit the market in 2006, but students of purpose marketing would agree that it quickly became the best-known company associated with that form of embedded giving.
Although the company was distributing a lot of free shoes with a network of nonprofit partners (over the lifetime of the program TOMS reported giving away more than 95 million pairs), critical articles appeared questioning the manner in which TOMS managed that enterprise. Common questions included whether TOMS hurt the footwear industries of nations where it gave away shoes; whether distribution partners were improperly requiring recipients to participate in other programs to be given shoes; or, cutting to the very core of the program, whether giving away shoes really made a difference in the lives of recipients.
By 2012-2013 it appeared that the company had caught up with many of the problems associated with trying to run such an enormous giving enterprise. A substantial team had been hired to work exclusively on giving and was conducting research to try to better understand how to improve their impact. For example, the company arranged for many shoes to be manufactured in the countries in which they were to be given away. TOMS shared information on its giving practices more freely. In fact, I was so impressed with their progress and achievements that Engage for Good, the organization I run, recognized TOMS with an award at our 2014 conference.
Toms (stylized as TOMS) is a for-profit company based in Los Angeles, California. Founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie, an entrepreneur from Arlington, Texas, the company designs and markets shoes as well as eyewear, coffee, apparel and handbags.
Blake Mycoskie visited Argentina in 2002 while competing in the second season of The Amazing Race with his sister. He returned on vacation in January 2006, and met a woman who was volunteering to deliver shoes to children. Mycoskie offered to help and has cited the shoe distribution experience, and the many shoeless children he encountered, as the birth of his idea for his eventual company.
He decided to develop a type of alpargata (a simple canvas slip-on shoe that is popular in Argentina) for the North American market, with the goal of providing a new pair of free shoes to youth of Argentina and other developing nations for every pair sold. According to Mycoskie, Bill Gates encouraged him by saying that the lack of shoes was a major contributor to diseases in children.
The company name is derived from the word "tomorrow," and evolved from the original concept, "Shoes for Tomorrow Project." Mycoskie initially commissioned Argentine shoe manufacturers to make 250 pairs of shoes. Sales officially began in May 2006. After an article ran in the Los Angeles Times, the company received order requests for nine times the available stock online, and 10,000 pairs were sold in the first year. The first batch of 10,000 free shoes were distributed in October 2006 to Argentine children.
In 2007, the company launched its first annual "One Day Without Shoes" event, which encouraged participants to go shoeless for one day in order to raise awareness about the impact shoes can have on a child's life. The event has had corporate sponsors such as AOL, Flickr, and the Discovery Channel.
By 2011, over 500 retailers carried the brand globally and in the same year, Toms launched its eyewear line. By 2012 over two million pairs of new shoes had been given to children in developing countries around the world. The Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the University of New Mexico has described the company as an example of social entrepreneurship.
Toms' business model is known as the "one for one concept" model, which is referring to the company's promise to deliver a pair of free shoes to a child in need for every sale of their retail product.