Everyone is familiar with the concept of ‘buy one, get one free’ and none more so than Blake Mycoskie, founder of American accessories brand TOMS. But Mycoskie’s take on the traditional BOGOF deal comes with an ethical twist. Instead of two pairs of shoes for you, when you buy TOMS, one goes to you and one to someone who really needs them. From Argentina to Uganda, TOMS have now given away more than two million pairs of their classic canvas shoes and have helped to tackle problems such as hookworm and school attendance in the process.
‘We looked at why people need shoes,’ says Mycoskie. ‘There are some places in the world where, frankly, people don’t need shoes and we don’t have any desire to give them to. People ask if it’s our goal to give shoes to everyone and that’s absolutely not the goal. We look to where people need shoes the most desperately.’ But Mycoskie isn’t stopping at shoes. This month TOMS eyewear launched in the UK, and the company is rolling out a new version of its ‘One for One’ model, this time aimed at tackling sight.
According to the World Health Organisation, 285 million people worldwide suffer from visual impairments of some sort, including 39 million who are totally blind. 90 per cent of these people live in developing countries, where untreated cataracts and infectious diseases are the leading cause of visual impairment. Even more shockingly, WHO figures suggest that 80 per cent of all cases of blindness or visual impairment can be either cured or avoided altogether. Sadly, in many countries, tackling them requires money that sufferers don't have. Enter TOMS. ‘We go to a lot of different places and meet a lot of different NGOs and non-profits doing work in the field,’ explains Mycoskie. ‘One of the groups that I was most impressed with was people doing cataract surgery and setting up eye clinics. Whether in Ethiopia or South Africa or in Nepal, they bring in eye surgeons and change people lives, literally in 48 hours. I was thinking about what we could do with the one for one model to address additional needs in the field and the most powerful thing I could imagine is giving someone their sight back.’
Quite how appalling blindness is to live with is hard to fathom if you’ve never experienced it so to give a flavour of what being blind is really like, the launch was held at London restaurant, Dans Le Noir. The Clerkenwell eaterie serves up supper in a pitch-black room and is staffed by blind people. So dark is the room, you see literally nothing and soon realise how hard simple things such as eating with a knife and fork become when you can’t see. I, like just about everyone else, ended up eating with my fingers and found the whole experience totally disorienting. Our waiter, Asher, told his story and explained how he went blind after an accident at 15. I stepped gratefully back into the light thanking my lucky stars and with considerably more sympathy for the blind than before. But can buying a pair of sunglasses really help?
According to Mycoskie, they certainly can. ‘Basically, for every pair of sunglasses we sell, we help give sight to one person. We work with one organisation [in Nepal] called the Seva Foundation and they were really good at making me understand. Originally we were thinking to sell a pair of sunglasses, give a pair of prescription glasses but what we found was that only really serves a third of the people because some people who come to the clinic need treatment. Other people who come to the clinic actually need surgery and we never want to have to turn anyone away, so what we decided was that one pair of sunglasses sold equals one person gets sight. If that means we have to do surgery then we do surgery, if that means we can give them prescription glasses, we give them prescription glasses.’
Starting with Nepal, Mycoskie aims to roll out his anti-blindness campaign in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Argentina and Zambia among others, using the same NGO partners as it does for shoe giving. What’s more, as with the shoes, TOMS will keep going back for as long as it’s needed. ‘What a lot of people don’t realise is that the most important parts of what we do is what we call sustainable and repeat giving. We don’t just give shoes to kids once we make a commitment to that community to provide the shoes to the kid as they grow out of them and as they need them. We feel that on average each child that we’re serving we give shoes to three times a year and that way they’re constantly getting the new shoes that they need and it’s one of the most important parts of our model. There’s no reason to do it if there’s no long-term sustainable way,’ adds Mycoskie. ‘Ideally I want to work myself out of a job, so we don’t want to be giving to them. I think there is a time for aid, but what we’re really trying to do is empower the people so they don’t need our aid anymore. My long term goal and this is a 20, 30, 40 year goal, is that we’re also creating a lot of jobs in these communities over time with local production and things like that, so that can help the local economy as well. Aid is important at a certain time for health and education, but it’s definitely not something we want to do forever.’
Mycoskie has raised an interesting point because for all that ‘One for One’ is a lovely idea that has helped a lot of people, it doesn’t look – superficially at least – like the most sustainable idea for a business. After all, TOMS shoes cost just £30 per pair, and from that, Mycoskie doesn’t just have to pay overheads on one pair of shoes; he has to pay for two. So how is he making it work? The answer, says Mycoskie, is slashing advertising. ‘First thing is we use high-class factories that are very specifically monitored and given checklists in terms of what we expect,’ says Mycoskie. ‘We don’t spend any money on traditional advertising, so if you look at most companies, like Converse or Nike, any of our shoe competitors, they’re doing print advertising and billboard advertising, celebrities, professional athletes, TV commercials…TOMS doesn’t do any of that and it [advertising] can be anywhere from 10 to 15 per cent of the cost of a sole. We take all that and put that into the manufacturing and distribution of the give away shoe. We’re very disciplined in our overheads so we have very controlled costs for our staffing and especially with the no advertising, it gives us a lot of extra money that other companies wouldn’t have.’
Still only 36, Mycoskie has come a long way since starting his first business – which paved the way for TOMS – at 19. Having achieved so much already, what’s left to do? ‘We’ll focus on eye-care for the next two years and try to get the sunglasses business on par with the shoe business,’ he says, so widely distributed and impacting the lives of millions of people. Then we’ll look to see what other needs the communities have. I’d like to continue on focusing on serving as many needs in the same communities around the world. With our NGO partners we can do more for those communities. It might be something with clean drinking water, it might be malaria nets… I don’t really have the idea yet, but it’ll definitely be something else.’
TOMS shoes and sunglasses are available from Selfridges, as well as online at www.selfridges.co.uk and www.toms.co.uk. Prices start at £20
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