Lessons in Corporate Social Responsibility from TOMS Shoes

A Doing Good Business Model Kicked Off a Wave of Social Responsibility

Tom's flag and shoe
Kate Ter Haar/Flickr

The darling of the corporate philanthropy fan club has been TOMS Shoes. And for good reasons.

TOMS Shoes is the handiwork of Blake Mycoskie, a young entrepreneur whose business model has put a new spin on corporate social responsibility.

Mycoskie has built a company that is winning both sales and hearts by giving away a pair of shoes for every one that is sold through its business.

Mycoskie got the idea for TOMS Shoes when he visited Argentina and saw many children who had no shoes.

At the same time, many adults in that country were wearing a very simple yet comfortable shoe that caught Mycoskie's eye.

Mycoskie's new company, TOMS Shoes, adopted that shoe style produced it in many styles and colors, and promised customers that for every pair of shoes they bought, another pair would go to people in need.

Mycoskie's idea took off to such an extent that TOMS has now expanded into sunglasses, using the same giveback formula, coffee, the purchase of which provides water where it's needed,  and TOMSinvests in other social entrepreneurial enterprises. in fact, the TOMS giving universe keeps on expanding and now includes nutrition, healthcare, and education.

TOMS has also been emulated by many social entrepreneurs. Warby Parker, that sells affordable eyeglasses online with the buy one / give one model, may be the most well-known example.

But there's also quirky Out Of Print that donates books when it sells its clothing line featuring out of print book designs, And there is Figs, a producer of clothing for healthcare workers, giving matching "scrubs" to healthcare professionals in developing countries.

TOMS, from following the emerging trend of social responsibility, has kicked off a wave of businesses that 'do-good' as part of their business plans.  And the wave continues as the line blurs between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Today, there are several ways to set up a business so that it can do good more easily.

Examples include hybrid organizations and B Corporations

Lessons from TOMS Shoes for Social Entrepreneurs

Ride a Trend

TOMS Shoes just happened to intersect with the rise in consumers who have become more conscious about their spending. They are willing to spend for consumer goods that also do some good in the world.

The  rising popularity of cause-related marketing has been spectacular, benefiting many causes as well as helping companies polish their reputations as good corporate citizens. The recent recession also resulted in many people reexamining their spending habits and intentions. But TOMS rode that trend to great success.

Bake in the Good.

TOMS Shoes goes beyond what other companies do. It is founded on the premise that sales equal the good done. Mycoskie has said, "...we know every day that we're going to give away one pair of shoes for every one we sell, and that's that. If we can't make the business work that way, then the business just doesn't work."

Build in Sustainability.

The model for TOMS Shoes is a self-feeding loop. Mycoskie has made the assertion, "If I would've taken half a million dollars and just bought shoes to give to the kids, I would've been able to give the shoes once.

It never would've been as far-reaching and sustainable as TOMS Shoes is now."

Give Employees a Reason to Be Proud.

Mycoskie insists that the employee morale at TOMS Shoes is phenomenal. "..how could you be down when you know everything you do makes children happy?" he has said.

Attach a Story to Your Product.

Give your customers a story that they can retell again and again. These shoes are unique enough to garner attention, and the wearer can boast about the fact that they are from TOMS Shoes, and here is what it means. Buyers feel good about their purchase and want to tell their friends. TOMS Shoes are cool and create buzz.

(Quotes from Success Magazine, 2009)


The Business of Giving - TOMS Shoes, Success Magazine, 2009

Toms Sets Out To Sell A Lifestyle, Not Just Shoes, Fast Company, 2013

The Founder of TOMS on Reimagining the Company’s Mission, Harvard Business Review 2016