Blake Mycoskie visited Argentina in 2002 while competing in the second season of The Amazing Race with his sister. He returned on vacation in January 2006, and noticed that the local polo players were wearing alpargatas, a simple canvas slip-on shoe that he began to wear himself and which are the model for the original line of Toms Shoes. They are made from canvas or cotton fabric with rope soles, but Toms makes theirs with rubber soles. Mycoskie said that when he was doing volunteer work in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he noticed that many of the children were running through the streets with no shoes on. He decided to develop a type of alpargata for the North American market, with the goal to provide a new pair of shoes free of charge to youth of Argentina and other developing nations for every pair sold. According to Mycoskie, Bill Gates encouraged him by saying that the lack of shoes was a major contributor to diseases in children.
Students attending colleges across the United States have created TOMS campus clubs. As of March 20, 2014, 281 campus clubs existed in the United States with another dozen located in Canada. By comparison, another nonprofit organization known as Lions Club International was established in 1917 and is known for working to ending the cause of blindness, reports 400 Lions’ campus clubs in 42 countries.
A story by LA Weekly priced the manufacturing cost of a pair of Toms Shoes at $3.50-$5.00 in U.S. dollars, and noted that the children's shoes given out by the company were among the cheapest to make, which is not necessarily apparent to consumers. According to garment-industry author Kelsey Timmerman, many people he spoke to in Ethiopia were critical of the company, saying that they felt it exploited the idea of Ethiopian poverty as a marketing tool. An Argentina-based shoemaker agreed, saying that the imagery used by the company was manipulative.
Author Daniel H. Pink described the company's business model as "expressly built for purpose maximization," whereby Toms is selling both shoes and its ideal. Toms' consumer market are purchasing shoes and also making a purchase that transforms them into benefactors for the company. Another phrase used to try to describe the business model has been "caring capitalism". Part of how Toms has developed this description is by incorporating the giving into its business model before it made a profit, making it as integral to the business model as its revenue generating aspects. Business tycoon and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote of the company's business model in his book Screw Business as Usual, "They look for communities that will benefit most from Toms based on their economic, health and education needs while taking into account local business so as not to create a correlating negative effect." He also commented on Toms' expansion into eyewear in order to help the nearly 300 million people who are visually impaired in developing nations.
What began as a simple idea has evolved into a powerful business model that helps address need and advance health, education and economic opportunity for children and their communities around the world. Supporting TOMS Shoes is also a compassionate display of support for helping children get some of the basics they need to enjoy better and healthier lives. Whether it's a pair of TOMS booties, shoes or sandals, you're helping to make a difference in the world.