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How Toms is creating shoes for humanity

Toms UK and Ireland country manager Neil Urwin tells Drapers how it is saving and changing lives with its pioneering “one for one” model. 

When Blake Mycoskie started footwear brand Toms in 2006, he created a new kind of business model and one of fashion’s most successful ethical brands. Travelling through Argentina, the Californian noticed both the popularity of the alpargata (a light canvas espadrille) in the country and the poverty that meant many children wore no shoes at all. Determined to help those in need and recognising the alpargata might be a hit with American consumers, Mycoskie created the “one for one” business model, whereby he donated a pair of shoes for each pair sold. 

His business idea, “Shoes for a better tomorrow”, evolved into “Tomorrow’s shoes”, and then Toms. 

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Toms’ signature alpargata style – desert taupe suede women’s deconstructed alpargata retails at £54.99

Toms’ signature alpargata style – desert taupe suede women’s deconstructed alpargata retails at £54.99

Eleven years on, Toms has donated more than 70 million pairs of shoes to children in more than 70 countries, ranging from the alpargata to winter boots and sturdy school shoes. The brand arrived in the UK in 2008, where it was initially sold through The Butler Agency. 

UK and Ireland country manager Neil Urwin joined the business in 2013 from Pentland Brands. He was tasked with bringing sales in house, as well as setting up the first UK office.

“I was brought in to make that transition from agency to brand and it almost felt like I was setting up my own business, although obviously I wasn’t,” he tells Drapers at the Toms “community outpost”, a hybrid coffee shop and store on central London’s Fouberts Place (pictured above).

“When Toms first started in the UK market, I was working for Pentland, but it was a brand everybody wanted to know about because it just blew up so suddenly and was massive. I’d go to wholesale partners and ask how Toms was doing.”

We have to have a great product that is fashion relevant, otherwise a certain kind of consumer just isn’t going to buy it

Toms is now stocked by an impressive array of retailers, including John Lewis, House of Fraser, Office, Schuh and Selfridges. Wholesale makes up 68% of the UK business, ecommerce 24% and own retail 8% (in addition to Fouberts Place, Toms has a store at Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet).

Urwin would not reveal UK sales figures, but says the business is strong and stocked in 650 doors across the UK. Globally, it has two more stores in Europe, 10 in the Middle East and eight in the US. 

Reuters reported that Toms was valued at $635m when Bain Capital bought a 50% stake in the company in 2014.

Beyond shoes

Much has changed at Toms since it launched. Giving back is still central to the brand, but shoes are no longer the sole focus. 

In 2011, its distinctive model expanded to include Toms eyewear, which funds sight-restoring medical treatments and prescription glasses for each pair of glasses it sells. A clean water initiative – which provides safe water in the countries from which Toms sources its coffee beans – followed three years later and the brand’s newest project helps expectant mothers in Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia and Haiti have safer births. For each Toms bag sold, the brand gives a safe birth kit and provides training to local health workers.

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Toms provides safer birth kits to women in Bangladesh, Iindia, Ethiopia and Haiti

“That’s the thing with Toms,” Urwin explains. “With every product we make, there’s a give behind it. A lot of companies do a similar thing now, which is great, but 11 years ago what Blake did was very unusual. It provides the backbone of the business. At the end of the week you can look back and say, ‘Yeah, I think we’ve made a difference.’”

Although Urwin says he has a lifelong interest in shoes and is clearly proud of working for Toms, his route into retail was more unusual than most. From the 1990s he was one of the UK’s top professional skateboarders. In 2005, he decided to retire and began to work in sales for skate and snowboard brand DC Shoes.

“I’d achieved a lot of what I’d wanted to do in skateboarding [including appearing in several adverts for Nike] and I hate treading water. I’m always looking for the next progression. I asked DC Shoes, who were sponsoring me at the time, whether there might be any opportunities for me and they said they had a sales job going in the north of England. 

“Skateboarding was amazing, and I travelled the world, but there would be periods when I’d be at home for three or four months with nothing to do but go to the gym, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”

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He enjoyed the work and boosted sales, although he admits being a former pro probably helped: “I was selling skateboarding shoes in a skateboard shop and people recognised me, so sales increased.” 

From there, he moved to clothing brand Gumball, becoming brand manager before moving to Pentland in 2009. 

As well as developing new ways to donate, Toms has also refined how it provides shoes, water and medical treatment. In its early days, it gave shoes directly to children, but it now works with NGOs (non-governmental organisations, which it refers to as “giving partners”) to improve distribution.

“They’re the people who are working in those areas, so they’re the experts,” Urwin says. “They know what’s needed and where. You can send a load of shoes, but if they don’t fit, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s almost like a wholesale model.

We make sure the shoes end up on the kids’ feet through the ‘last mile contribution’

“It’s not just about shipping the shoes to port and saying: ‘That’s done.’ We make sure the shoes end up on the kids’ feet through the ‘last mile contribution’ – we pay for the shoes to get to a child’s foot, whether that’s in a van, or on the back of a donkey.”

One of its giving partners is the International Medical Corps (IMC), which works with people affected by war, natural disaster and disease.

Judith Harvie, IMC technical co-ordinator, explains: “The shoes we receive can help refugee families stay healthy and stop the spread of disease, restore a sense of normalcy to a child struggling to recover from war, and provide many of those who have lost everything with a valuable possession that many of us around the world take for granted.”

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Consumers are increasingly aware of where their clothes are coming from and the potential harm the fashion industry can cause around the world, Urwin argues: “If you look at it even from a mainstream high street point of view, there are a lot of people who are talking about how they produce, whether it’s the ingredients being used by food retailers or, from a fashion point of view, which dyes are being used and how they affect the environment. People want to understand that sort of stuff more and more. Consumers don’t want things that are harming the environment.”

However, he is equally clear that Toms does more than rely on its ethical credentials: “The one-for-one model is a huge strength, but the product has to be there as well. We have to have a great product that is fashion relevant, otherwise a certain kind of consumer just isn’t going to buy it.”

Colin Temple, managing director of Schuh, says: “We’ve stocked the brand since 2009/10, so pretty much at the point it launched in the UK. We loved the ‘one for one’ message and believed this would resonate with our core customers, but importantly we also felt the product was very relevant at the time. Toms was receiving very positive endorsement with influencers in the US, which we believed we cross over to the UK. 

“Since then the brand has evolved by widening its product offering within footwear, as well as adding other categories such as bags, but keeping their ethos of giving something back which our customer definitely likes. Once customers discover the Toms brand and the ethos behind it, they often become peer-to-peer ambassadors for the brand and often repeat purchase, too.”

This is part of the strategy, says Urwin. Toms offsets the cost of producing and distributing the shoes it gives around the world by having a smaller marketing and advertising budgets than other businesses, using its one-for-one model to connect with consumers.

Building a following

One brand following in Toms’ footsteps is T-shirt and sweatshirt label Selfish Mother, which is stocked by John Lewis and has worked with charities including Save the Children. 

Founder Molly Gunn has incorporated the one-for-one model into her own business through its #GoodTees initiative: “Toms combines giving and a decent sense of style. I admire the one-for-one business model because it means you can run a business and give back – you don’t have to do one or the other. I donate £10 from every #Goodtee I sell and have raised £500,000 for charity so far while earning a living, which is inspiration I’ve taken directly from Toms.”

We’ve diversified the product offer and really grown the winter business over the past three years

At the heart of the business model, however, is sales. Canvas espadrilles are fine in sunny California, but Toms has  been busy diversifying its product offer. Although Urwin recalls hearing of determined Toms fans queuing to buy their alpargatas in the snow, creating a more winter-appropriate product mix has been a key focus over the past three years. Waterproof boots, brogues and sneakers have all been added into the range. Toms’ price point is kept competitive, ranging from £35 for a classic alpargata to £120 for winter boots. 

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“We have to make sure we’ve got what’s relevant for our market as well, because sometimes it’s a completely different consumer from the US business,” he says. “We’ve diversified the product offer and really grown the winter business over the past three years. When I joined, it was 90% summer. We’ve managed to get winter products to about 27%, which has come from just having relevant products.”

The brand is also on the brink of several new collaborations, including its first foray into ready-to-wear. It is teaming up with & Other Stories on a clothing and footwear collection, which will be available in Toms and H&M-owned & Other Stories stores in April, as well as online. The designs are inspired by Los Angeles’ Venice Beach, and the brands will donate one month of English language classes to charity Magic Bus for each item of clothing sold. Footwear will start at £55 and clothing will range from £49 for shorts to £125 for a kimono.

With a strong product offer and a message that has resonated loud and clear with consumers, Toms looks set to stay one step ahead. 

As Urwin concludes: “Toms is only 11 years old and it has come so far. There’s so much potential for the future and the brand attracts a certain kind of thinking – you really have the freedom to make it your own.” 

Toms’ giving by numbers

  • 70 million pairs of shoes given around the world
  • 445,000 people have had their sight restored
  • 400,000 weeks of safe water provided
  • 70,000 mothers given safe birth services 

Readers' comments (2)

  • What does Tom's give to all the shoe-makers and shoe retailers in these countries? There's more than a few independent alpargata businesses that have been put out!

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  • This is pure marketing darling make people look poor and sad to make money. watch this video on youtube to get a real perspective of the effects of this business model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hX0g66MWbrk

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