Interview: TOMS CEO Jim Alling
TOMS CEO, Jim Alling, was in Amsterdam at the end of last week to launch the new “Stand for Tomorrow” campaign, and to speak about the evolution of the brand’s giving model. The aim is to now create broader impact through addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time, through initiating project-based investments with local non-profits and ‘changemakers’ across the globe. The brand will continue its original “One for One” giving programs, where for every pair of shoes they sell, they give a pair away.
Over the last 13 years the US company has given more than 86m pairs of shoes to children in need, and has also restored sight to over 600,000 people since the launch of TOMS eyewear in 2011. Starting this spring, TOMS will focus its European project investments on local issue areas including homelessness, female empowerment and “social impact entrepreneurship”, working alongside non-profit partners including Centrepoint, and “changemakers” including “hairdresser for the homeless”, Joshua Coombes.
What prompted your visit to Amsterdam?
A big event to talk about the change we’ve made to the giving model at TOMS. It’s about sharing the story in our fastest growing region, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). It’s a very significant shift that we’d already started, but weren’t in a position to share it publicly until we’d already done some of the work. It’s a recognition that we need to continue to innovate in how we use business to improve lives.
How important is the UK market for the TOMS brand?
It’s very important as it’s our largest market within our fastest growing region. Germany is close to the UK, then Netherlands, and France is our fourth biggest market within EMEA.
How long have you been at TOMS and what do you see as your best achievements so far?
I’ve been with the company for four years now. It’s always hard to talk about your achievements, because I can see more of the mistakes I’ve made, but there are things that I’m very proud of, particularly when it comes to product innovation. We have really done a great job in improving the quality and interest level in our products, as well as growing our brand awareness. We’ve done a lot through our supply chain to improve the product and fit, feel and designs. It’s being well received in the marketplace. And, while we’ve been innovating there, we have continued to keep the company’s culture. That’s a very important part of TOMS. People who come to work at TOMS come more for the mission of using business to improve lives. We haven’t lost who we are and our commitment to giving.
How do you view the sustainability aspect?
It’s very important, especially in regard to the sustainability of our giving impact and the people we touch, but also in the imprint we make from an environmental perspective, and the people in our factories and supply chains. We recently became a B Corp certified company. It’s an organisation that really measures and audits you very deeply. It’s a third-party validation of what your impact is on people. They look at the benefits you have for your employees, how you treat your business partners, and they also go out and audit your factories to make sure the working conditions are good. They look at your environmental impact and if you are using recycled materials, as well as your carbon footprint and your transparency. TOMS is one of the larger companies that is now B Corp certified. You have to meet their standards, but they also point out areas where you can improve. We’re above the threshold on environmental footprint, but I think we can do even better.
What is the real focus of the new “Stand for Tomorrow” campaign?
We will start with an awareness campaign in early March, and we are essentially evolving our strict “one for one” giving model, though that will continue. We heard from our consumers and supporters, who said they love what we are doing but they would also love it if we addressed some of the important issues on a local level, such as issues which really mean a lot to us in the UK, or in Germany, France and so on. We are committed to giving with all purchases made, but we recognised we could actually have more impact if we also started to look at ways to spend that money differently. So, we are investing in certain areas. In the UK we have made an investment to support hairdresser Joshua Coombes, who was already out there making change by cutting the hair of the homeless on the streets. We’ve partnered him with Centrepoint, the organisation that addresses homelessness. It’s something that Joshua has a lot of passion for. We have also made an impact investment in Centrepoint, so they are able to do that bit more work in addressing this problem. An event will be happening this spring at the Centrepoint headquarters in Manchester with Joshua.
How will you get the word out on this new work?
With our TOMS social media platform, we’re in a position to share the stories and bring more awareness to people’s needs, especially the homeless between 16-25 years old. Joshua recognised that he wasn’t just giving them a haircut, he was treating them as equals and having a conversation with them, as well as giving them dignity and respect. It’s been great for the people whose hair he has cut, but even more fulfilling for Joshua. As a result, he started an organisation called “Do Something for Nothing”, and he now travels and cuts the hair of homeless people all over the world. We look for people we call “Changemakers” who can help us with the story telling vehicle and how we can engage our consumers and the people around us. When we saw his story, we thought this needs more attention. We are looking at investing in projects that impact more in local markets, and the issues that people feel most powerfully about.
Who are the other ‘changemakers’ for the new spring campaign?
Ella Grace and Sara Nuru are each hosting one event in partnership with TOMS that will be in collaboration with a local non-government organisation (NGO), highlighting a specific social issue of our time. For Ella, that is female empowerment and Sara, social entrepreneurship.
What are the long-term goals for the TOMS brand?
The most important thing we can do is stay true to the mission of using business to improve lives. The more we sell, the more people we can impact. We’d like to have double digit growth in sales over the next five years. More importantly, we also want to grow the reputation of the brand and the awareness of what we do. It’s about building people’s affinity and making them TOMS followers, supporters and purchasers. We recognise that we can’t make the positive social impact we want to make if we don’t have people buying our shoes.