More and more big brands claim to be “purpose driven” – but what can we learn from the forerunners that have been purpose-driven from Day One? Suston connects with Cotopaxi, Northern Playground and Pyua to find out.
Not so long ago, it used to be all about performance. Today, virtually no sane outdoor company would stake its entire brand identity on performance as its sole value driver. Instead, more and more brands are realizing that to remain relevant in this industry they need to go beyond just producing the products we need. They need to stand for something, a purpose, a development that now has the majority of established brands in various states of rebranding and restructuring themselves accordingly.
A handful of brands in the outdoor industry, however, were founded on purpose from their first day. And it turns out they have plenty of advice for how the rest can navigate these relatively uncharted waters as they embark on a similar journey.
Cotopaxi: The People’s Champion
As outdoor enthusiasts particularly enjoy experiences in wild, healthy ecosystems, it is not strange that many outdoor brands focus their core purpose on activities relating to climate and conservation. In that sense, adventure gear and apparel brand Cotopaxi’s focus on “people” truly makes it an outlier.
Founded in 2014, the Utah-based company’s mission from the very beginning has been to help alleviate extreme poverty. Its founder, Davis Smith, had spent much of his time growing up in impoverished parts of South America – at one point in the shadow of his company’s namesake, Ecuador’s stratovolcano Cotopaxi.
All too familiar with the harsh realities of poverty, Davis Smith sought to harness his entrepreneurial skills and the outdoor community’s good will towards making an impact that would last. Cotopaxi’s senior director of impact and sustainability Annie Agle shares with Suston how the company made sure that no matter how much the company grew or what challenges it faced, that it would always remain fixed on its purpose:
“From the very start, Cotopaxi was registered as a Benefit Corporation and later as a third-party certified B Corp to ensure a triple-bottom-line was engrained in its corporate governance structure – no matter what the future might hold for the company. In 2018, it then tied its profit model to philanthropy with the launch of the Cotopaxi Foundation, which the company bylaws require Cotopaxi to give 1% of its revenue to in perpetuity.”
The purpose of the Cotopaxi Foundation would be to finance poverty reducing projects. But the company was also well-aware of the history of social aid projects swallowing enormous sums of money without resulting in any demonstrable positive outcomes.
“Cotopaxi has been adamant from the start to make sure that contributions go to good use,” shares Annie Agle.
“We chose to leverage the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Poverty Action Lab research methodology to support evidence-based poverty alleviation projects that work.”
Malaria prevention programs like “Nothing But Nets,” for example, where a simple malaria treated mosquito net can save families from being bankrupted by the disease. Or supporting girls’ education programs, where research finds that educating just one girl in a family can be enough to bring the entire family out of extreme poverty within just 5 years.
For her part, Annie Agle is convinced Cotopaxi is doing the right thing and is making a difference in people’s lives. But she believes that the company’s convictions result in its own unique challenges, such as constantly wrestling with meeting its social and environmental goals as it grows. Not to mention being constrained by ethics, no matter how noble, which often eliminates the option of taking the paths of least resistance (and profitability) followed by most other businesses.
“Of course, we can’t fight poverty on the front-end and then contribute to it on the back-end! We need to mitigate and take responsibility for these risks with fair and responsible production. This means that we often find ourselves needing to break new ground, which at times can make you feel quite alone,” admits Annie Agle, before concluding on a more optimistic note:
“Fortunately, we’ve found a fantastic, supportive community of like-minded companies within B Corp. It’s these people, Cotopaxi’s employees, and our conscientious customers that prove to me every day that humanity has the potential to be good!”
Northern Playground: Consume Less (Without Going Naked)
Is it possible for an apparel brand to make money by asking current and potential fans to reduce their consumption? With a motto that says, “buy less, play more,” the Norwegian outdoor apparel brand Northern Playground seems to think so. But is this more than just a hollow sales argument? Suston met with its CEO Jo Egil Tobiassen in Oslo to find out.
“Look, its recycled! You better buy two!” says Jo Egil Tobiassen with more than a hint of irony, before continuing to give a damning assessment of the mainstream sustainability agenda’s unacknowledged evil twin: a growth model dependent on high volumes.
“Nothing we’re doing is sustainable, and anybody who says so is lying.”
Northern Playground set out with a “sustainability first” mission – not a mission to overthrow the ruling business model of the day. But as the company began to scale up, Jo Egil Tobiassen found that its sustainability goals quickly bogged down in a quagmire of retailers, agents and distributors in an effort to sell as many products to as many people as possible.
“We were constantly being forced to cut hairs to make just a little more money off each product. This meant that even though we were growing fast, there was less and less left over to manufacture our products responsibly.”
This experience left Jo Egil Tobiassen jaded, but fortunately not for long. Following a simple yet surprisingly successful D2C pilot project in 2018 selling a select range of products produced locally, Jo put the two business models side-by-side and saw what he needed to do. A major course correction ensued for the entire company, which saw Northern Playground move towards a primarily D2C model.
Today, Jo reports that his company has never seen better results. Northern Playground is now back on track to becoming the fan-owned, fan-designed
“activist company” that Jo Egil Tobiassen originally envisioned, producing responsible, long-lived products.
What was it exactly that enabled such a change?
Looking back, Jo believes that the key reason the growth model fails to deliver on sustainability objectives, and what temporarily derailed Northern Playground’s mission, rests upon what he refers to as the Big Five Economic Wastes: discounts, overproduction, middle-men, expensive marketing, and lowest possible price.
“Basically, these five things add up to take a substantial chunk of the margins left over after the production and sale of a product. Thus, the only way to make it pay off is to sell insane volumes. So, brands are forced to do everything they can to convince you to buy just one more product.”
According to Jo Egil Tobiassen, the secret to Northern Playground’s newfound success, its “course correction,” involved doing the exact opposite of the Big Five. Northern Playground never offers discounts, for example, not even to shareholders. It does not produce collections, but instead sells the same timeless products until stocks are depleted. It cut ties with 90% of its retailers to eliminate intermediaries, prioritizing its own sales channels and a few select retailers instead. It slashed its marketing budget, using fans rather than celebrities to help spread the word. And finally, it offers its products at a price that can support fair and more sustainable production.
“As a result, our margins are much bigger. And with this, we’re able to reinvest in things many brands can only dream of.”
What dreams would these be? Unlimited lifetime free repairs, for one. Or primary production in Utenos, one of the most sustainable manufacturers in Europe, as well as locally in Oslo. Like many other sustainability-minded brands, Northern Playground also has an impressive uptake of preferred and predominantly natural fibers. Jo Egil Tobiassen feels that this is important, but stresses that it should only be a secondary concern after tackling the growth through high volume model:
“I think by focusing primarily on preferred fibers, mainstream brand sustainability programs are misguided on at least two counts: Firstly, because it is widely understood that fibers represent just a fraction of a product’s overall impacts. Secondly, that because no matter how sustainably a product is produced, these reduced impacts will mean nothing if people continue consuming more and more of these products.”
“I’d say forget fibers – we can flip the world by focusing on margins.”
Pyua: “Let’s close the Loop”
A key problem of the growth model is currently waste, which not only results in the pollution of ecosystems but also requires extraction of virgin resources. What if both problems could be mitigated?
The German brand Pyua was founded with the intention to solve the industry’s waste problem by raising the bar on circularity. Pyua, meaning “pure,” stormed onto the ski slopes in 2008 as the first supplier of 100% recycled high performance ski outerwear. Pyua CEO Dr. Stefan Mohr explains why precisely this purpose was selected as its raison d’être:
“We saw the need to focus on circularity because it doesn’t matter how sustainably a product is made in the current system, it ultimately ends up in the trash as hazardous waste and raw materials must be produced and consumed again. So, when we asked ourselves what the future of the textile industry was, we saw a 100% circular economy as the only inevitable approach.”
Many might see circularity as a far-off reality at best and others as simply a buzz-word. Pyua, on the other hand, is in a hurry and has one of the most ambitious circularity goals in the industry to prove it is possible to close the loop right now:
“Our goal is to produce 100% circular products by 2025. The winter collection for 22-23 is already well on its way with 92% circular products.”
To achieve this goal, Pyua has set about implementing circularity as the main driver in all of its activities and as the central element in every step of its product development from design to production to use and to end-of-life recycling.
This process has not been without its fair share of challenges, however, and Dr. Stefan Mohr acknowledges the limitations of what just one relatively small brand can accomplish. That’s because no matter how hard Pyua fights to close the loop, circularity will only truly succeed when all parts of the industry’s value chain get on board. Neither does he consider it an easy task to convince partners in the supply chain, as placing the purpose bar high comes with a premium price tag that not all end-consumers are willing to pay. As such, Dr. Stefan Mohr completely understands that being “purpose-driven” might not be for everybody.
“But as a brand, I can’t see what other value driver you should have instead of purpose. An authentic and future relevant purpose will draw customers and, in our experience, top talent. There’s a completely different energy and motivation in our team. You can really feel that we all work and live with the purpose in mind,” shares Dr. Stefan Mohr, before concluding that an authentic purpose also helps fatten the bottom line:
“This just so happens to also be the most compelling argument to convince partners, investors, and ultimately customers.”
Lead photo: moritz-ablinger.com / Pyua