Toms Shoes–the canvas shoe company that pioneered the “buy one, give one” model now copied by nearly everyone–is debuting a brand new “one for one” idea called Toms Glasses. Buy one pair and people in the developing world, who have just as bad vision as we do but little access to ophthalmologists, will get free glasses, medical treatment or surgery.
Could it mean a change of title for founder Blake Mycoskie, Toms’s Chief Shoe Giver? (We kid.) Mycoskie says that his travels in the developing world revealed a new problem: “What we’ve seen with our shoes is that they really help people with two basic needs:
education and being able to work and have a livelihood.” Improving sight has the same affect. Children who can’t see in school can’t learn; older workers who lose their vision can’t work. And it’s a large problem. There are 284 million people around the world who are visually impaired, and 39 million who are blind.
“As I traveled around the world, I started to see more people who were visually impaired or blind living these desolate experiences. As I started asking question about what they needed, it was so simple. They either needed glasses, cataract surgery, or medical treatment.” Thus was born Toms eyewear.
The glasses themselves–which start at $135–come in three styles and feature three hand-painted stripes that are supposed to represent you, the person you’re helping, and Toms connecting you. The company, which gave away a million shoes last year, is launching its eye care programs in Nepal, Tibet, and Cambodia (where Pol Pot targeted people who wore glasses). It’s working with what it calls a “Sight Giving Partner,” the Seva Foundation, which will administer the actual eye programs. Mycoskie says it’s a helpful step for him to be less involved than in his shoe-giving past: “I’ve been there when they got surgery… and I’ve handed out the glasses. But as Toms grows, it has to be less about ‘What’s Blake’s most intimate, joyful experience?’ and more about ‘What’s the great need?'”
And that’s the key to the new “one-for-one” company model: solving the great needs through Western consumption. Shoes, and now glasses, are just the beginning. It wants to be the company that embodies every aspect of consumption that also results in help for the developing world. Once they get the glasses right, expect to see many more products from the company. “I want people to know that they’re giving, in a one-for-one way, with every purchase.”
And what does Mycoskie think about Warby Parker, a company that’s been around since 2010–as Toms was preparing to launch–and also gives glasses away? “I was super excited. I can’t solve [this problem]. They can’t solve it. It has to be a collective effort. I stand up on stages all across America telling people to start a business that gives back. And they listened to that, and they did it. It was hard, though, because I couldn’t congratulate them.”