TOMS Shoes: Does Buy-One-Give-One Work?

The World

Some of you might be familiar with the Santa Monica-based TOMS Shoes.

The company promotes a "buy-one-give-one" business model and says it has provided millions of needy children with footwear.

The company is the subject of an investigation by reporter Amy Costello. Costello was The World's Africa correspondent for many years. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her reporting from Darfur for the PBS television program FRONTLINE/World.

She is now anchoring a podcast called Tiny Spark - Igniting Debate About the Business of Doing Good.  She looked at TOMS in the latest installment.

Anchor Marco Werman talks to Amy Costello to get more details.

We requested an interview with TOMS officials, but they declined the offer. They sent a statement expressing their disappointment that Amy Costello's investigations did not include interviews with TOMS "giving partners" or supporters.

Statement from Sebastian Fries,  chief giving officer, TOMS:

"While we welcome all opinions and points of view, we're surprised that Amy Costello chose not to speak with, or include, any of our current Giving Partners for her segment, nor the numerous supporters of TOMS and our business model throughout the NGO and academic communities who have a more balanced assessment.

Regardless of the reporter's suggestions, TOMS is a secular company. While we are constantly trying to learn and improve our approach, we're extremely proud of what we have accomplished through the One for One model in such a short amount of time, and remain committed to giving shoes and helping give sight to people in need around the world."

Read the Transcript

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Marco Werman:  Some of you might be familiar with a California based shoe company called Toms. It has a buy one give one business model - that is Toms promises to give one pair of new shoes to a needy child somewhere for every pair purchased by consumers. The company says it's given away two million pairs of shoes this way. Toms is a subject of an investigation by reporter Amy Costello.  She was The World's Africa correspondent for many years.She's now anchoring a podcast called Tiny Spark: Igniting debate about the business of doing good. Its latest installment is about Toms and how the company works.

Amy Costello:  The model is based on the idea of harnessing the power of consumers who want to do good with their purchases. So with the buy one give one model and in a case of Toms shoes for instance, if you buy a pair of their shoes they promise to give a pair to a child in need and this model has been so successful with Toms and it's inspired lots of other entrepreneurs to try similar business models. In the case of Toms shoes it is a private for profit company so details are difficult to get but if they have sold two million pairs of shoes at an average of $50.00 a pair there a $100,000,000 company at least.

Werman:  Now listeners who know about Toms shoes may know about about Toms shoes founder, Blake Nicoski. Tell us a bit about him and his ideas.

Costello:  Blake has really been celebrated as quite a successful entrepreneur in recent years since he launched Toms shoes. He is, he said, 35 years old. He is often hailed as being someone who at from a very young age he'd already started several successful launches of startup companies, Toms obviously being his most successful.  And about 10 years ago he appeared as Mr. Tennessee in Fox television's America's Sexiest Bachelor. He was then in The Amazing Race with his sister, Paige. So I kind of portray a guy who's really always been after the media spotlight and is clearly really enjoying his time in the media spotlight now with Toms shoes.

Werman:  So what did you find out about who these shoes are actually going to?

Costello:  The first place I started with was Toms own website and one thing that's readily apparent is that many children who are receiving Toms shoes already have shoes of their own. You can see that in the photographs. So that raises the question for me is if there are lots of children in need why are children getting their second pair of shoes from Toms?  And I think to a lot of people that's fine and I agree. I think it's a wonderful thing if children can have more than one pair of shoes. That's not the issue for me. It's just that if they are going to be giving thousands and thousands of shoes to children who already have them then I think their marketing message needs to be a little different because then you're not really reaching the world's neediest children.

Werman:  Now you spoke with Laura Freschi. at New York University's development research institute. Here are some of her words.

Laura Freschi:  I'm concerned that Tom's sort of creates the impression that there are no shoes to be purchased inside these communities when in fact there are vibrant, local economies. In many of these places where they are giving shoes it's important to acknowledge that in some cases the buy one give one model practiced this way could be harmful to those local producers and sellers.

Werman:  Amy, you spent a lot of time looking at that the people who actually give out Toms shoes in the field. What did you find out about these giving partners?

Costello:  What I discovered after kind of hunting and pecking around Tom's own site was that they had partnered with a number of secular organizations over the years. But I immediately noticed the number of Christian evangelical organizations that Toms has partnered with. They've partnered with at least eight different evangelical organizations around the world to distribute their shoes and what I found in some instances is that some of these evangelical partners are bringing the message of Jesus during shoe distributions which is against Tom's policy.  Tom's says it's a nonpolitical, non-religious organization and that in some instances children may be receiving shoes because they go to Christian schools. I found instances in Rwanda where missionaries from Arkansas came to distribute 6000 pairs of Toms shoes and only distributed within one Christian evangelical dioceses in northern Rwanda.  They went to one school that was not in the dioceses.  So what this raises for me is the question of are children who are in need but who are not attending Christian schools, who are not affiliated with Christian organizations, also getting shoes?

Werman:  And?

Costello:  And I don't know the answer to that because it's impossible to know where all two million shoes have gone and I have repeatedly asked Toms for response to the questions that I raise in my piece. I've asked them for interviews and have been denied. So I would love some more information from Tom's about their evangelical partners and if they are ever in violation of Tom's company policy about shoe distributions, what actions are being taken, if any.

Werman:  Amy, good to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Costello:  Marco, thank you.

Werman:  For more on Amy Costello's investigation into Tom's, listen to her podcast, Tiny Spark. We have a link at  We requested an interview with Toms officials.  They declined but they did send a statement expressing their disappointment that Amy Costello's investigations did not include interviews with Toms giving partners or supporters. It also noted that Toms is a secular company. The full statement is also at

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Editor's Note: Here is an archived version of this discussion, which took place on an older version of our website. Feel free to continue the conversation in the live comment section below.



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      I was listening to the report, and the comment about children that already had shoes getting shoes struck me as odd.  My feet continued to grow until I was 15 years old, and no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to wear my shoes out.  In fact, that problem has continued into adulthood.  it seems only fitting that the charity work that has made a difference in a child's life be continued, and an odd point for Ms. Costello to try to use to make this program seem disingenuous. 

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        How is this newsworthy? Is there a scandal here or not? If so, report it. If not, what was the point of the story? This story seems to try and imply via suspicions and innuendo the existence of a scandal unsupported by facts. I am not a supporter of any religious organization working in Africa or elsewhere, nor am I a supporter or opponent of TOMS. I have no idea whether there is something scandalous in the manner in which TOMS does business, and listening to this report leaves me no more informed about that than I was before. 

        I am a very big fan of The World and have listened to almost every show for many, many years. This story was far below the journalistic standards of The World, and is probably the worst, half-baked piece of journalism that I have ever heard on this program. Costello seemed intent on damaging the reputation of TOMS, but only succeeded in seriously damaging her own reputation. 

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          Amy Costello's angle has created a lose-lose paradigm for any organization with a mission statement, faith-based or not.

          Distributing shoes within an organization's realm of influence or contact structure could be interpreted as exclusionary, which Ms. Costello did.

          However, if an organization steps outside of its context, their actions could be interpreted as 'coercive' or as 'proselytizing.'

          It sounds like Toms is working with any organization willing to distribute shoes, which is a noble effort.

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            amy_costello  Lauren_Chicago 

               Hi Lauren.

              TOMS says it is a secular company with a mandate to reach children in need, regardless of their religious affiliations. Therefore, is there not a case to be made that the company should partner with some of the many organizations, whether secular or faith-based, that are serving the most at-need communities without any type of religious "sphere of influence" or "contact structure"?

              I don't believe my story creates a "lose/lose" paradigm. To the contrary. I would argue that it's a win/win paradigm when a company establishes a mission, a company policy, and a marketing campaign, and then chooses partners who can carry out those stated directives, without compromising their own. When the missions and goals of the implementing partners are NOT aligned with the company's secular policies then, yes, you may risk creating a lose/lose paradigm.

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                Tara Norris  amy_costello 

                  "Secular" does not mean "atheist."

                  Your article never established that TOMS was AGAINST giving to children in a religious school, though I think you did imply it.

                  It seems to me (by the evidence you suplied) that TOMS is obviously OK with just giving.  No matter whom the recipients.

                  When Lauren said you created a "lose-lose" situation, I took her to mean that, based on your criticism, you could apparenlty find fault with anyone who wanted to give to those in need. Basically if they didn't do it according to your rule of who is most in need, or which companies should or shouldn't give to which children.

                  Though they may be a "secular" company (which again, does NOT mean "against God") it seems to me that they're ok with being NON descriminatory, and giving to needy kids, whether they are religious children, or not.  They don't feel it necessary to EXCLUDE children from a benefit, just because they believe in something.

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                Tara Norris  Lauren_Chicago 

                  Agreed again!   ANY giving to someone "in need" is good.  
                  (Assumed: you're not giving them something detrimental to their health, etc.)

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                  Why is she trying to smear a company who is at least trying to be socially responsible? Seems like a self-serving attention grab to me.  The world would be a lot better off if she did an investigation on Phusion Projects (makers of Four Loko and other high-alcohol sodas--"Alcopops"-- that are consumed primarily by youth), whose Facebook page tries to make them sound like a charity organization. I can think of about 1,000 other companies that would be more worthwhile to call out than TOMS.

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                    amy_costello  shaferhol 

                       Hi Shaferhol. I think it's acceptable, and even important, to critique socially responsible companies. This is a huge, growing sector and there are all kinds of organizations - often working in remote corners of the globe - that are attempting to "do good". While I applaud this effort, and am pleased to see American consumers interested in using their buying power to assist others, I think it's fair to raise questions and to explore how effective some of these initiatives are and how they might be improved.

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                        Mari Vega  amy_costello 

                          This is valid. It is important to remain vigilant of all companies we support as consumers, etc. On this particular company, it's so strange that they didn't grant you an interview and then faulted you for not talking to their partner orgs. Weird.

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                          Tara Norris  amy_costello 

                            Yes, it is always fair to raise questions.  But I think by now, after reading quite a few comments, and your answers to them, it is painfully clear. 
                            Your readers see right through your motives.  
                            You're either [1] tring to make TOMS look bad, or [2] jut trying to create a story where is none.
                            Next time, go and try to expose a company that SAYS they're trying to do good, but actually isn't.
                            It seems that TOMS is just trying to help people.  ANY people.

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                        Ryan Hjelle 

                          So the real problem this reporter has with shoe distribution is that it is done, in part, by a religious organization.  She sounds a bit intolerant to me.

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                            amy_costello  Ryan Hjelle 

                               Not at all, Ryan. Faith-based organizations are doing wonderful work across the globe. TOMS is partnering specifically with Christian Evangelical organizations and some of those partners are bringing the message of Jesus during shoe distributions and sometimes only delivering shoes to Christian schools and Christian institutions. What about children in need who don't attend these institutions? In my story I point out that TOMS own staff distributed shoes at Sonrise School in Rwanda, a boarding school which had received $1.5 million in donations from a US charity in the three years prior to that shoe distribution, according to tax records. That school educates many orphans but it could be argued that this is not the place where children are in greatest need given the generous support the school already receives from American benefactors.  I asked TOMS why it chose to distribute shoes at Sonrise but received no response. TOMS' Giving Partner in Rwanda has ties to this school, so I presume this is why Sonrise was chosen.

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                                Tara Norris  amy_costello 

                                  If you have a problem with which children they're giving to, based upon how much support those kids' schools have received from other sources....
                                  I just have to ask, are you charitably helping ANY kids?   
                                  If so, I think helping ANY kids is a good thing.  Why do you have to criticize them for who they give to?
                                  Do you give ONLY to kids who have NO food, NO clothes, NO shoes? 
                                  Again, as a casual reader, I agree with Rober_In_Austin: Costello seemed intent on damaging the reputation of TOMS.
                                  How does that help anyone?

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                                TOMS is doing a great job and setting an example for other companies. For crying out loud, The Redcross does not do a perfect job( if we are to talk about organization that are supposed to help people).  This would have been a story if TOMs was not giving away shoes. I'm sure TOMs didn't see a reason to respond to these accusations and that's why they didn't respond. 

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                                  It may appear that the children wearing shoes who then get a pair of TOMS Shoes, 
                                  actually have a pair of shoes, but the fact is some children shares shoes with siblings, or the one pair they have on don't fit well or have bad soles etc. Obviously writer Amy Costello doesn't have children who out grow shoes every few months.

                                  Folks in China who make APPLE products cannot afford the buy the products they make. Sure someone in the communities where TOM gives out shoes, may have a small store that is selling shoes but if you are in poverty, how is a parent supposed to buy shoes for many children who out grow their shoes every 3-6 months? Use some common sense.

                                  Spoiled Americans like Amy Costello who think because they can buy new shoes when they want, everyone in other countries can as well.And why didn't Amy Costello talk to any of TOMS partners who give shoes out? That is the BIG question she did not ask. Lazy reporter.

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                                    amy_costello  Beth 

                                       Hi Beth.

                                      You raise a valid point about the notion that children sometimes share a pair of shoes. In that case, it would be great if each of them could receive his or her own pair. 

                                      In terms of your contention that many families cannot afford to buy their children shoes -- this is true and our discussion on that subject did not suggest that families living in poverty can or should go buy their own shoes. Instead, my story explores the fact that in many communities, there are shoes available for sale and asks whether there might be better ways to get shoes to kids who need them other than flying them in from factories in China, Ethiopia or Argentina, which is where TOMS shoes are now manufactured. Could shoes be bought locally and distributed to children? Could they even be manufactured locally and given to children? And is giving things out for free a good aid model?

                                      I requested several interviews with TOMS. I also provided them with a list of questions PRIOR to my posting my podcast so that they were aware of the issues I was raising and so that they had an opportunity to respond via interview or in writing. I received no response. Blake Mycoskie and TOMS staff have themselves distributed thousands of shoes on so-called "shoe drops" so they are able to answer questions about how the distributions are carried out, how they choose their Giving Partners, and what their expectations are for their Giving Partners in the field.

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                                        Tara Norris  amy_costello 

                                          You never addressed in your article, though you bring it up now: (AC) is giving things out for free a good aid model?

                                          sure, you COULD make the kids work for the shoes. 

                                          Or you can do like practically EVERY other chartiable organization, and give the shoes to them for free.

                                          and: (AC) Could they even be manufactured locally and given to children?  
                                          OK, if that's what you want, then YOU need to go open a manufacturing plant where these children live.  Don't want to?  OK. Then do like TOMS, and manufacture the shoes wherever suits you, and then give them to these kids.

                                          and:  (AC) Could shoes be bought locally and distributed to children?  
                                          OK, so I need to gather up some money, and then GO to the place where the children with no shoes live, and I need to buy the shoes THERE?  
                                          Then that would make you happy?  Because it helps the local economy?
                                          I don't know how many trips per year I can afford to other countries.

                                          How about: someone who owns a shoe company will give me the opportunity to give shoes to a child on the other side of the planet when I buy shoes for my own child. 
                                          OK. I can do that.

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                                        I was glad to hear this investigation. It is important to know the background in organizations such as these, and I  found it interesting that TOMS declined the chance to give their side of the story.

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                                        Tracy Devine 

                                          Costello's obviously biased podcast begins with references of TOMS' founder being bare chested and seeking fame, and ends with her thanking those "who've been critical of TOMS over the years."  How or why we would take seriously the thoughts in between is beyond the logic of any reasonable person.  Tiny spark?  Yeah, really, really tiny.

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                                            amy_costello  Tracy Devine 

                                              Hi Tracy.

                                              TOMS' media campaign is centered around Mycoskie.  An exploration of his history with the media, his quest for prize money, and how he presented himself on those programs, is worth noting. As I say in my story, Mycoskie himself underscores how important the Amazing Race was to him. In his new book he called the third place finish "one of the greatest disappointments of my life."

                                              At the end of my story I credit those who have been "critiquing" TOMS for years. It's considered good practice to recognize others who have inspired your work. Many bloggers have been evaluating and raising critical questions not just about TOMS but  about the Buy One, Give One business model; they've been asking whether giving things out for free is good aid; they've questioned the limits of consumerism to change the world. They did so long before I ever did and yes, I absolutely acknowledged their contributions to this important dialogue.

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                                                Tara Norris  amy_costello 

                                                  It seems to me that it's NOT worth noting.  
                                                  I know nothing about him.  Nor does it matter to me.
                                                  I don't care if this guy is portrayed positively, because I can't even remember his name.  And I don't watch Amazing Race, so I really don't care.

                                                  So why (to you) is it worth noting in a NEGATIVE way that he seems to be into himself?  A LOT of people are into themselves!!!

                                                  (AC)  "So I kind of portray a guy who’s really always been after the media spotlight and is clearly really enjoying his time in the media spotlight now with Toms shoes" 
                                                  (because he was a "sexiest bachelor" and on "amazing race.")

                                                  Why not say, "this guy seems really into himself (because he was a "sexiest bachelor" and on "amazing race), but check this out!     He tries to help needy kids!!!!

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                                                When I hearth the tail end of this report on the radio, I thought the were talking about Tom's organic toothpaste.  It seemed so unlikely.

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                                                Hate You 

                                                  I still don't understand if TOMs did anything wrong here. I don't think it's an issue if there is no manufacturing plant near these areas as that does not help the business make any more money. They are still a for-profit organization. There is a reason why these places are really poor. Sometimes they don't have the natural resources to sustain these kinds of manufacturing. Or if they do, they don't have environmental laws preventing an abuse of these natural resources. Meaning materials will have to be imported, maybe at an additional cost. Opening up a manufacturing plant does not mean that there is a end to the economic woes of a particular country. Also regarding having missionaries pass out the pair of shoes. I don't see anything wrong with that. Whether TOMS is non-religious or not, has nothing to do with the missionaries. Part of their work is to pass the gospel and since there are not alot of people in these areas with connection to the outside world, they make the best distributors of products. 

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                                                    We are a retailer who was 'approved' to sell TOMS shoes when they first came out and were seen at Trade Shows in Florida and California.  TOMS has been a nightmare to deal with from a business standpoint.  They basically 'interview' the stores they sell to in order to make sure we meet some type of criteria they have developed as part of their 'business plan'.  They should be selling to any store who wants to put their overpriced, poorly manufactured (we send a lot of shoes back for credit from our customers who come in angry that their TOMS have fallen apart in a few months) shoes in their stores.  If TOMS is so philanthropic, why do they prohibit some stores from purchasing them or from purchasing certain styles of their shoes?  We've been with them since the beginning and they DENIED us access to a style of shoe they sell, for reasons unknown to us.  They also are very picky about which stores are able to sell their horrible quality sunglasses, which give 'sight' to those in need.  TOMS has been less than enjoyable to work with and we are seriously considering to drop them altogether.  I found this site while googling, 'what % of TOMS shoes are made in China'.  I haven't had a good feeling about them from the start.  

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                                                    Ben George 

                                                      That comment was by me :)

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                                                      Ben George 

                                                        Who are these people commenting on this article???!!!? Haha, I've never seen such well thought out logical discussions on an article online. Well done and thank you all for sharing your thoughts! And Thanks Amy for your commitment to investigative reporting, which is an art form that is extremely important these days, in my opinion. 

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                                                        El Tapatio 

                                                          fck!! if i would've knwon that sht i would'nt let my gf 2 buy them fckin shoes thats totaly fcked up,toms is only givin away shoes 2 those fckin church ppl WTF!! watabout them poor children in real need??? if they dnt go 2 those fckin churchs they not able 2 get their pair of shoes??? i was gon' buy anotha pair 4 my sis but now that i heard that... fck them n their fckin shoes.. i'd buy them if real poor children get a pair other than that fck toms shoes!! he dicho.

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                                                          Tara Norris 

                                                            And WHY was this story on the front page, if all of these comments are 2 months old?

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                                                              TOMS officials declined our offer to be interviewed for this segment. They would not talk to Costello, or agree to discuss these topics with the host of our program.  I again invite them to speak to the important issues raised here. 

                                                              Joyce Hackel
                                                              The World

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                                                                Tara Norris  joyhackel 

                                                                  To echo Pete KN (and I have never boght a pair of TOMS, nor does it matter to me whether the company succeeds or fails):  
                                                                  "TOMS is doing a great job and setting an example for other companies. For crying out loud, The Redcross does not do a perfect job (if we are to talk about organization that are supposed to help people). This would have been a story if TOMS was not giving away shoes. I'm sure TOMs didn't see a reason to respond to these accusations and that's why they didn't respond. "

                                                                  I'm sure TOMs didn't see a reason to respond to these accusations and that's why they didn't respond.

                                                                  I'm sure TOMs didn't see a reason to respond to these accusations and that's why they didn't respond.

                                                                  I'm sure TOMs didn't see a reason to respond to these accusations and that's why they didn't respond.

                                                                  GET the POINT?

                                                                  When someone's house burns down, or their house is flooded, and the Red Cross helps....
                                                                  Do YOU fault the Red Cross if they help give shelter to a Mom and her kids, after they lost their house, if the Dad is an alcoholic?

                                                                  Sure, he spends ANY money he can on booze. 

                                                                  Does that mean his children should sleep on the street tonight, because the house burned down?  
                                                                  Maybe he could have spent that money on a new smoke detector.

                                                                  No - the Red Cross helps them, and you're ok wtih that.

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                                                                  Tara Norris  joyhackel 

                                                                    I'm copying MattCompton: I was listening to the report, and the comment about children that already had shoes getting shoes struck me as odd. My feet continued to grow until I was 15 years old, and no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to wear my shoes out. In fact, that problem has continued into adulthood. it seems only fitting that the charity work that has made a difference in a child's life be continued, and an odd point for Ms. Costello to try to use to ****** make this program seem disingenuous.   *******

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