2013-11-05

Co.Exist

Toms Opens Up A Marketplace For Socially Responsible Companies To Sell Their Wares

From the people that made buy-one-give-one popular comes a place where you can shop for only products that make a difference.

In addition to offering up stylish shoes and glasses, TOMS is now selling products from other feel-good businesses through a brand-new online marketplace. Think of it as the seedling of an Amazon.com for socially responsible businesses.

Since its launch in 2006, TOMS has sold millions of products and given away over 10 million pairs of shoes and 150,000 eyeglasses through a somewhat controversial one-for-one program. So when founder Blake Mycoskie released a book two years ago profiling entrepreneurial leaders in the social good movement and offering tips to up-and-comers, he was inundated with emails and letters from other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Then he had an idea: "The social entrepreneur movement is growing and thriving and allowing more and more people to buy different types of products that have a giving component to it, but there's no central hub to see all these products, to get inspired by their stories in one place," Mycoskie says. "We created one place—The Toms marketplace, and curated companies and products that we believed in."

At launch, the marketplace features 200 products from 20 companies. The companies include 31 Bits, which sells recycled paper jewelry made by internally displaced Northern Ugandan women; Stone + Cloth, a startup founded by a former Toms intern that makes backpacks to benefit educational initiatives in Africa; and LSTN, an upscale headphone company with a one-for-one model that gives hearing aids to people in need. Customers can browse through products by region or cause.

Toms selected the companies based on whether their products work, whether they had shipped before to other retailers, and their overall impact. "We want to make sure that they're authentic and being effective in doing what they said they're doing," explains Mycoskie.

This isn't an entirely altruistic endeavor, of course. Toms will take a cut of sales, and in return, the companies get the benefit of free advertising and marketing. While the Toms team was initially concerned that the marketplace could cannibalize sales of Toms products, Mycoskie believes that's not the case—and that the marketplace could even bring in new types of customers.

"As we continue to grow our brand, we want to add more and more products that men can enjoy as well," he says. The marketplace could initially attract men with products like headphones and bikes—and maybe they'll stay for the Toms shoes. For now, Mycoskie adds, the marketplace won't sell shoes or eyeglasses. That really would be cannibalizing Toms's business.

In the future, Toms will expand the marketplace during each shopping season (spring, summer, fall, and holiday) with relevant new products—that means products that are both seasonally appropriate and that fit in with whatever theme Toms has chosen for its catalogue. If the spring catalogue is all about Africa, maybe the marketplace will get some new items from South Africa or Tanzania.

The Toms marketplace is reminiscent of Patagonia's new venture fund for environmentally responsible startups. In both cases, wildly successful brands that put a strong emphasis on social good (and that have owners who really believe in their missions) are giving back in a business-friendly way to the larger entrepreneurial community. "When you think of your personal philanthropy, you naturally go back to wanting to see more companies like Toms exist or like Patagonia exist," says Mycoskie.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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