TOMS (http://www.toms.com/marketplace) started in 2006 with what was then a novel idea: for every pair of shoes it sold, it would donate a pair to a child living in poverty. Along with donating more than 10 million pairs to date, the company spurred a trend of “buy one, give one” companies, with the eyeglass maker Warby Parker among the best known. Now Toms is introducing an effort that helps other businesses with a social purpose, Toms Marketplace. The online store, which will be introduced Tuesday, will feature more than 200 products from about 30 companies and charities. Yellow Leaf Hammocks, for example, employs members of vulnerable communities, like the Mlabri tribe in Thailand, to produce colorful hammocks, while Stone and Cloth produces backpacks and other products in Los Angeles, with a portion of revenue going toward scholarships for students in Tanzania, Africa. While some of the companies have a one-for-one donation model like Toms, others take different altruistic approaches.
The basis for choosing companies to include in Toms Marketplace wasn’t “‘one for one’ as much as, ‘Does this company really have a mission of improving people’s lives baked into its business model?’ ” said Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms, using the shorthand term for donating one item for each item sold. While consumers are accustomed to recommendations from online merchants based on algorithms, such as Amazon suggesting that a buyer of an Arcade Fire album might also like the National, the new online store will base suggestions on consumers’ concerns along with their tastes. Visitors will be able to shop by what causes or part of the world they wish to support.
Introduced to coincide with the holiday shopping season, the online store will remain open afterward, selling items ranging in price from $12 (a blank notebook from Denik, with $1 going toward building schools) to $418 (a weekend bag from JADEtribe that is made by women in a Laotian village). Rather than hosting other brands and taking a commission from sales, Toms has bought the inventory outright at wholesale, and is taking on the logistics of warehousing, shipping and most customer service.
“When I started Toms, people said, ‘What can I do?’ and I said, ‘Sell shoes,’ ” said Mr. Mycoskie, adding that his goal was to now help others sell their wares. “I thought the best thing that I could give them is a marketplace and exposure to consumers interested in shopping with a larger purpose,” he said.
Lisa Tarver, co-founder of One World Futbol Project, maker of durable soccer balls that do not require inflation and are provided to poor communities through a buy-one-give-one model, said the new venture promises exposure for both the ball and the cause of encouraging sport and play. “Toms is one of the pioneers in this area, and the marketplace is an opportunity for social entrepreneurs to reach a broader audience,” Ms. Tarver said.
According to an annual study by the Edelman public relations agency, when quality and price were equal, 53 percent of consumers ranked a brand’s activities on social causes as a deciding purchasing factor in 2012, up from 42 percent in 2008. Carol Cone, global chairwoman of the Business and Social Purpose practice at Edelman, said Toms had resonated with younger consumers because the company “isn’t about a cause patina, but instead is about really being deep and purposeful.” Ms. Cone, who lauded the new effort, said “the power and velocity of the Toms brand” is likely to help less established brands.
Toms introduced a line of sunglasses in 2011 that contributes to eye care, including prescription eyeglasses and ophthalmic surgery. With the exception of so-called retargeted digital ads, which are displayed to users after they have visited Toms.com, the company has never advertised — but it will for the new online store.
Billboards that display products offered on Toms Marketplace, with the tagline, “This is bigger than us,” will appear in New York and Los Angeles beginning Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, a 30-second commercial that features Mr. Mycoskie and representatives from the other brands will appear on monitors inside about 7,000 New York cabs. The campaign was produced internally.
Only about 25 percent of the shoes sold by Toms are men’s models, and Mr. Mycoskie said that he hoped the offerings by some of his partner brands, like LSTN, a headphones brand which helps provide hearing aids, and Movember, the men’s health charity that sells T-shirts and other items with its mustache logo, would draw men to the site. “We sell a lot of shoes to guys, but we’re not connecting to mainstream guys the way that we need to,” Mr. Mycoskie said. “A big part of our future is with guys, and it was an important part of our criteria to have some of these more masculine products that reach more men.”
Sean D. Carasso, founder of Falling Whistles, which has the motto “Be a whistle-blower for peace” and sells whistles to help finance services for former child soldiers and others in Congo, said the cause-related products sold in the new online store would benefit one another.
“If you’re in a dark room filled with candles and holding the only lit candle and you use it to light another candle, you don’t lose any of your energy but now you’re in a brighter room,” Mr. Carasso said. “And that’s how I feel about the marketplace — all of the iterations are stronger together.”
From ‘Buy One, Give One’ Spirit Imbues an Online Store’ By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN Published: November 4, 2013. A version of this article appears in print on November 5, 2013, on page B7 of the New York edition.