How providing long lasting footwear can help one of our most vulnerable populations
A Bombas “donation sock.” Image courtesy of Bombas.
It’s so obvious, but only once you’ve heard the line: The most requested donation item by homeless shelters is socks. Two and a half years ago, the company Bombas was formed with the specific purpose of crossing out that line entirely, launching its own line of socks complete with a “buy one, give one” commitment.
Today, Bombas is approaching the sale—and donation—of its millionth pair. But their millionth pair is nothing like their first.
In general, the need for socks at homeless shelters is basic. Unlike coats, socks are what's called a “wear through” item, which means they’re used until they develop holes, lose their elasticity, or are so used up they get thrown in the trash pile. Understandably, shelters won't take used socks, but that makes donating difficult because most people don’t have new socks just lying around the house. All these factors combined to make Bombas a suddenly essential business idea.
Originally, Bombas co-founders David Heath and Andy Goldberg wanted to donate the same sock that their customer had purchased. “Despite it costing more, it was important to not give an inferior product,” says Heath. Bolstered by an Indiegogo fundraiser (that still ranks Bombas as the platform’s highest supported apparel venture) and the world’s easiest consumer ethos, they developed a new line of socks. Hundreds of thousands of pairs were sold, meaning that hundreds of thousands feet were subsequently outfitted with free, comfortable socks.
But halfway through their endeavor, Heath and Goldberg realized a pattern: Shelter residents consistently requested the darkest color available, and the co-founders started realizing that just because they were getting products for free didn’t mean their homeless clients didn’t have specific needs. The perfect sock for a retail consumer wasn't necessarily the perfect sock for someone living without a home.
The fact is, someone experiencing homelessness doesn’t wear socks the same way as someone privileged enough to be giving them away. Consider this: In cases of chronic homelessness, it’s not uncommon for a person to develop “trench foot,” a term that was born during WWI when soldiers’ feet were exposed to prolonged dampness in combat trenches. If left unaddressed, “trench foot” could result in necrosis of tissue. Almost 100 years later the cure for the condition remains the same. Change your socks.
If Heath and Goldberg couldn’t make the environmental conditions for homeless people better, they could at least improve their footwear. So with their “donation sock”, they refashioned their approach, bumping up the tech their socks already had to withstand different, more rugged conditions. In a way, they tried their best to walk a mile in a homeless person’s shoes.
A consumer model of a Bombas sock.
First, Heath and Goldberg had to figure out why those at the shelter opted for black. Homeless people don’t have the ability to launder clothes, and darker materials show less wear, less discoloration and fewer stains, which allows for longer use. That was easy.
Homelessness isn’t a sedentary state, either, and trudging between shelters, appointments and public restrooms or showers can mean miles are logged on foot. Without socks, chafing is unavoidable. Chafing leads to blisters, and while blisters and scrapes aren’t fatal, the open wounds can be extremely dangerous for people braving the elements every single day. Homeless individuals are prone to chronic medical conditions which can complicate adequate circulation to the feet; poor circulation can lead to poor wound healing; wounds can lead to infection. But socks insulate the foot from these conditions, and while any old sock will help a little, your bulk bag of white cotton pairs weren’t designed for such continual use. A homeless person may go months without changing their socks.
So Bombas reimagined the structure of the product. The tufted seam that usually runs across the toe is replaced with a hand-linked seam, while the heel’s traditionally straight stitch is reworked, better bracing the area. For extra strength they reinforced the seams altogether so the socks can comfortably go the distance, and to help mitigate food wounds they incorporated a blister tab. It’s like a tiny ankle cushion above the heel to reduce chafing where the shoe hits the leg, and that’s in addition to yet another cushion in the reinforced footbed. The result is a kind of super-sock designed for people who pound an extraordinary amount of pavement.
But any apparel item is only as durable as its base material, so the donation sock is made with the longest category of cotton available. Extra long staple cotton is known for being the softest type of cotton as well as the most durable. It also stays warm in winter and cool in summer, which is major when you consider the biggest enemy for your feet is moisture and exposure, which is remedied by dry, clean socks. (Remember the trench foot?) Luckily, Bombas’ material has natural moisture wicking properties. As the final layer, the socks get an anti-microbial treatment, creating an environment that’s less prone to the growth of fungus and bacteria.
Enterprises like Bombas and its sort of spiritual sibling, Toms, are important because homeless truly is a crisis. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 560,000 people are homeless in the United States Alone on any given day. If you consider that a company like Bombas is closing in on its millionth donated pair, you could think of it as providing each of those people with two fresh pairs of socks. And that is a step in the right direction.