As Scottish philosopher/economist Adam Smith explained more than two centuries ago, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." This means that charity isn’t much of a factor in capitalism. It’s all about taking care of your needs by making the necessary trades of products, labor, and capital with others who are taking care of their needs. Why, then, have companies like TOMS shoes and Warby Parker eyewear succeeded when they give away half of what they make? Through their "one for one" programs, every pair of shoes or eyeglasses purchased results in a comparable pair of shoes or eyeglasses given to people in need around the world. And now there’s Bombas, a new sock company that’s following the same business model, sending a pair of socks to a person in need with every traditional purchase. What would Adam Smith think?
I think he’d be cool with it, because the idea doesn’t really mitigate his theory of rational self interest. As any Econ 101 student can tell you, charity’s not a one-sided transaction. Whether you drop a quarter into a homeless person’s tin cup or a quarter-million to fund an inner-city art museum, you’re purchasing the warm feelings that go along with your benevolence. TOMS, Warby Parker, and now Bombas are using charity to differentiate themselves from the many other companies that do what they do. They sell shoes, eyeglasses, and socks, as well as the satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve helped someone, somewhere. And they add a tangible element to the deal. While you wiggle your toes or scrunch your nose and admire your new purchase, it’s easy to imagine some poor kid doing the exact same thing, and probably feeling twice as happy about it.
As for Bombas, the company is the brainchild of David Heath and Randy Goldberg who, along with their business partners, did a bit of research and discovered that socks were the number one most requested clothing item in homeless shelters. Armed with that knowledge, they designed a line of bumblebee-adorned socks (Bombas is derived from the Latin word for bumblebee) that are stylish, high-tech, and comfortable, and committed to the one pair purchased = one pair donated philosophy. (Scroll down to the video below for details.)
I’ll let the sock experts weigh in on their quality, which involves a honeycomb support system, seamless toe, and Y-stitched heel, among other 21st Century sock innovations. All I know is that they’re extremely comfortable, allowing me to complete a serious run in Prospect Park yesterday even though I was hung over. So, benevolence aside, they’re very good socks, and they don’t cost any more than other high-performance socks. You can get a starter pack of three pairs, plus three pairs donated, for $24.
But is the charitable element a way to make Bombas stand out from its competitors? Well, yes, but it’s not just that. Heath and Goldberg do care about the less fortunate, and clearly enjoy being able to help in their way. And with backgrounds in some of the most successful tech companies New York has produced in the past decade, they could have taken more traditional career paths involving the standard dealmaking so many contend with every day to make a living. Instead, they sell socks, and they help poor people, and they use one to aid the other. Try as I might, I can’t find a problem with that.
And so we’ve got a world of poor people wearing designer eyeglasses, high-performance socks, and stylish shoes. Anybody out there care to complete the ensemble? Underwear, pants, and shirt-makers, I’m looking at you.