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Toms’ Chief Giving Officer on Relevance, Responsibility and COVID-19: On Brand

The California cool footwear brand once heralded for its One for One giving model has officially evolved. Closing the chapter on 14 years’ worth of shoe donations—to the tune of 100 million pairs—Toms has updated and augmented its goals for a new decade.

Late last fall, the company released its roadmap for what a new era of corporate social responsibility would look like. Toms’ chief giving officer, Amy Smith, spoke to Sourcing Journal this spring about the specific issues, as well as collaborations and new product lines, that are propelling the brand forward into an era where consumers are more informed than ever .

“If you don’t stand for something and you’re not investing in a meaningful way, your relevance as a brand will be called into question—especially by the younger consumers,” Smith said. Millennial and Gen Z consumers are up to speed on the social and environmental issues facing brands, and they’re voting for the winners with their wallet share.

“They have information and knowledge at their fingertips 24-7, and they are optimistic about the world getting better,” Smith added.

The issues

There was a moment a year-and-a-half ago when Toms recognized that the world around it was changing, Smith said. “In order for us to have the greatest possible impact in the issue areas that our consumers care about, we also needed to evolve and create a more flexible and sustainable way of giving,” she said.

While the company will continue to donate shoes in some capacity, the giving team came to the conclusion that shifting its strategy away from the One for One model that made the brand a household name was a must if it wanted to tackle bigger projects.

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Now, for every $3 Toms generates, it gives $1 to a charitable organization, or “giving partner.” “Moving away from a shoe-for-a-shoe model gives us more flexibility and allows us to focus on issue areas that matter to our consumer,” Smith said.

The team distilled their goals down to three main areas: mental health, community safety and equal access to opportunities. “We believe those three things are interwoven, so when we’re supporting one, whether that’s through our shoe giving our grants giving, we’re supporting all of them,” Smith said.

Throughout more than a decade of giving shoes, the company realized its efforts were yielding multifaceted results. “We learned through shoe giving that people’s physical safety from injury and disease was being impacted. Their confidence, or mental health, was being boosted by having a new pair of activity-appropriate shoes,” Smith said.

“And being able to complete a school uniform was part of the equation, too,” she added, emphasizing how appropriate footwear often played an integral part in getting kids into the classroom.

The issue of mental health was also a particular call out from consumers, Smith said. Last year, Toms’ “Pick Your Style, Pick Your Stand” promotion empowered shoppers to fund issues with their purchases.

“Mental health was far and away the most chosen category by the consumer,” Smith said, admitting that she and her team were surprised by the result.

“Not a lot of other companies are working in the mental health space,” she said, and the consumer input validated the team’s decision to seek out organizations championing the issue this year.

Rather than sending out a request for proposals, Smith said, her team is currently sitting down with potential partners to get an understanding of their goals—along with their funding struggles.

“They may be really excited about something, but can’t figure out how to get it off the ground,” she said. “Those are the types of opportunities we’re looking for, and the selection process is as rigorous as it’s ever been.”

Sustainability

Toms now faces the challenge of rounding out its corporate responsibility profile with environmental stewardship initiatives that match the sophistication of its longstanding humanitarian efforts.

The company became a certified B Corporation in late 2018, denoting a commitment to meeting the third-party environmental group’s standards for both social and environmental performance, along with public transparency. B Corp brands have a legal accountability to balance their profits with purpose, the group claims.

That means streamlining supply chains to produce less waste, exploring new materials, and ensuring the health and safety of its manufacturing workforce.

It also means revising its roster of products and looking to sustainable material solutions. For a brand that has made its mark chiefly through a core selection of iconic slip-ons, this means attempting to strike gold with a whole new set of ingredients.

Products from the Toms Earth Wise line, made with Repreve.
Products from the Toms Earth Wise line, made with Repreve.

Earlier this spring, the company launched Earth Wise, a product program “rooted in earth-friendly materials and processes.” In order to receive the Earth Wise distinction, Smith said, either the upper or outer unit of the shoe must be made with a sustainable component.

The current selection of Earth Wise products includes shoes with linings and uppers made from Repreve’s plastic-bottle-based fabrics, zero-chemical plant-dyed uppers, Tencel lyocell wood pulp linings, and Ortholite insoles, which contain 26 percent eco-content.

The company is also expanding its roster of collaborations, and is seeking out brands with similar values.

Outerknown is a good example of that,” Smith said, citing the SoCal direct-to-consumer label co-founded by surfer Kelly Slater. “It’s a collaboration with a clearly value-aligned organization known for their efforts with the environment. We’re leveraging that fashion brand and coming together with them for an earth-friendly sandal.”

The limited line of men’s flip flops is made with Econyl regenerated nylon straps and features lightweight midsoles made from Bloom algae instead of traditional polymer-based EVA.

Flip flop styles from the Toms x Outerknown collection.
Flip flop styles from the Toms x Outerknown collection. Outerknown

Toms has a ways to go before it can claim sustainable status, Smith said. Known for its passion for human causes, bringing the same focus to the environment will be a years-long effort.

“Some of the things that made Toms famous in the beginning are now table stakes across a majority of brands that our consumer would want to buy from,” she added.

“We are very committed to our social efforts, but we need to be sustainable,” she said. “What does that look like for Toms, and what does that look like for Patagonia? I don’t think it’s the same. But we want to make sure that our customers know that we’re committed to both.”

COVID-19 response

As the coronavirus began its international spread in early March, Smith said, Toms’ leadership was already deep into talks about further diversifying sourcing away from China.

“I don’t sit in a leadership team meeting where we don’t talk about tariffs or what’s happening in China,” she said, adding that the company had been moving production on certain items “for a variety of reasons, from a product development standpoint,” when the virus hit.

Toms’ Chinese factories were operating short of full capacity in March, driving an expected delay on goods that should impact the selling season.

Still, despite production hiccups, decreased consumer demand and the undoubted turmoil of a January corporate restructuring, the company has responded to the crisis.

On April 1, Toms began donating one-third of net profits to the COVID-19 Global Giving Fund, which supports healthcare workers through Americares, Partners in Health and International Medical Corps, the Crisis Text Line for mental health support, and WaterAid, which is deploying hygiene and hand-washing programs in more than 30 countries.

“Now, more than ever, we are honored to apply what we have learned over the past 14 years of giving to address this global health crisis,” Smith said. “We know the best way to help is to use our resources and the power of our customer’s purchase to invest in our giving partners who are on the frontlines directly addressing this pandemic.”